Sour Voter Mood Could Tip Senate To the GOP Side

REPUBLICANS, cheered by key political victories in 1993, are laying plans to seize majority control of the United States Senate in this year's midterm elections.

Top GOP targets: Senate seats in Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

President Clinton, who currently enjoys a 56-to-44 Democratic advantage in the Senate, has a lot at stake in the coming election showdown in November.

Political analyst Charles Cook says if Republicans grab control of the Senate, ``all of a sudden, Clinton's agenda for 1995 and 1996 would have to be fundamentally different.''

Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says to head off big Republican gains, Mr. Clinton and the Democrats need to make rapid progress in two areas: health care and welfare reform.

GOP strategists hope that the anti-incumbent mood so evident in 1993 continues right through this year. Democrats must defend 21 of their seats this year, Republicans only 13.

``If 1993 is indicative, we're going to pick up seats,'' says Gary Koops, an official at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. ``I come in here every morning believing we will win a majority.''

Ken Klein, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, concedes some races, like Virginia, will be tough for his party. But he points out that Republicans could have serious troubles of their own, especially in Texas, Minnesota, Wyoming, and Montana.

Historically, midterm elections do little to change the Senate lineup in a president's first term, but some analysts say this year could be different.

In Dwight Eisenhower's first term, the Republican Party lost only one Senate seat. John Kennedy's Democrats gained three seats, while Richard Nixon's Republicans gained two. Jimmy Carter lost three, Ronald Reagan gained one, and George Bush lost one.

But Mr. Koops says 1994 will be dramatically different because of the voters' sour mood. Even generally popular politicians, like Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, are not safe, he insists.

Key flash points in 1994 could be the six open races, where incumbents are stepping down. Three of these are now Democratic - Michigan, Ohio, and Arizona - and three are Republican - Missouri, Wyoming, and Minnesota.

In addition, there are several wild cards where unusual factors could upset the best-laid plans of Washington's party strategists.

For example, in Texas, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) has struggled for months against charges that she used government employees for private and political purposes while serving as state treasurer. A Texas judge will consider amended indictments against Senator Hutchison on Friday.

Since the filing deadline for the Senate race in Texas has passed, a criminal conviction of the senator would leave the GOP without a well-known candidate in the Lone Star State.

Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon is fighting sexual misconduct and ethical charges, which have threatened his position in Congress. Senator Packwood's term doesn't run out until 1998, but he conceded this week that as recently as November, he considered resigning.

If either Packwood or Hutchison is forced from office, Republican plans to gain a majority in 1994 could sustain an insurmountable setback.

The GOP appears to be in a better position to defend their open seats than the Democrats, however.

In Wyoming, Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R) will step down after this year, but the GOP has at least two well-known Republicans ready to fill his shoes - Rep. Craig Thomas and former Interior Secretary James Watt.

Similarly, in Minnesota, Sen. David Durenberger (R) is retiring, but several potentially promising Republican candidates, including freshman Rep. Rod Grams, leapt into the race.

Mr. Cook, who is editor of The Cook Political Report, calls the Minnesota election a tossup but adds that Senator Durenberger's departure actually improves prospects that the seat will remain Republican.

In Missouri, the other open Republican post, former Gov. John Ashcroft (R) quickly moved into contention with the pending retirement of Sen. John Danforth (R). Analysts say Mr. Ashcroft should win that race, though Democrats could eventually make it very close.

Meanwhile, Democrats must defend their own open seats in Arizona, Michigan, and Ohio. The GOP is expected to be extremely competitive in all of them.

Democrats also fret about some of their troubled incumbents, such as Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia (widely considered to be the most vulnerable US senator) and Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania.

Cook says Republican Senate prospects may eventually depend on Clinton, who has been on a roller coaster ride with public opinion since he took office.

If the Clinton roller coaster is soaring high in November, he could carry several Democratic Senate candidates along with him. But if Clinton roars down to another low, Republican dreams of big gains could come true.

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