Democrats need big win to control Senate

Five open seats make 2000 one of the most competitive contests - but GOP is likely to retain grip.

When first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton declared her Senate candidacy before thousands of enthusiastic supporters in Westchester County yesterday, she also jumped into another key contest - the fight for control of the US Senate.

New York's is one of five open seats that have made the race between the Republicans and the Democrats for the perks and power that come with a Senate majority the most competitive in recent years.

Each party has raised more than $25 million to bolster its candidates' chances. That's unusual for Democrats, who usually lag sorely behind their GOP brethren in the finance department. The Democrats have also recruited a solid slate of challengers to put up against a list of vulnerable Republican first-termers.

But with nine months to go before Election Day 2000, the Republicans seem well poised to maintain their grip on power. Even the Democrats admit that, in order to turn the tables and retake control, every contest must break in their favor.

"We'd have to win every race that we think we can win; we couldn't have any surprises on our side," says David DiMartino, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "That's not outside of the realm of possibility."

But it will be a challenge. While 18 Republican incumbents are up for re-election, only one of the open seats is a result of a Republican retirement, Sen. Connie Mack of Florida. The other four open seats had belonged to strong Democrats - from retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in New York to Sen. Frank Lautenberg in New Jersey to the most recent surprise, the departure of Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey.

That means for the Democrats to regain control of the Senate, they will not only have to keep their 10 incumbents that are up for re-election, but also win every open seat, and knock off a few vulnerable Republicans in the process. Many Republicans think that's unlikely.

"Our goal is to maintain control of the Senate," says Stuart Roy, communications director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "If we do that, it will be the first time since the 1920s that the Republicans have had control of the Senate in four consecutive elections."

THAT would be quite a feat, but being in the majority today doesn't mean quite as much as it once did. In the past 15 years, increasing partisanship and the use of the filibuster have eroded the clout of the majority party.

The filibuster was once used only as a rare weapon on critical issues of the day - like when Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond talked for 24 hours and 18 minutes to try to prevent passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1957. But now it's turned into a tactical tool routinely threatened on everything from the Patients Bill of Rights to judicial nominations, almost anything that has a partisan cast to it.

The result is that to wield any kind of real power in the Senate today, a party really needs a super-majority of 60 votes, not a simple one of 51.

And neither the Democrats nor the Republicans appear close to winning that in 2000.

"The dirty little secret is that the American election is going to have very little impact on the policies that are going to be passed next year," says Sandy Maisel of Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "It doesn't matter who wins, you're not going to be able to get radical policies passed [on either side]."

Two years ago in the wake of the impeachment battle, many Republicans thought they were in spitting distance of winning that magic 60 votes.

Instead, they didn't gain a single seat. This year, many analysts think they'll be fortunate to hold on to their current majority of five votes, because of the large number of vulnerable first-term incumbents that rode into office on the anti-Clinton wave in 1994.

In Michigan, Sen. Spencer Abraham is facing a tough challenge from Rep. Debbie Stabenow (D). Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft is in a dead heat with Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, who's already raised more money than Senator Ashcroft. Other vulnerable GOPer's include Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Minnesota's Sen. Rod Grams, and Sen. William Roth in Delaware.

On the Democratic side, only one of the 10 incumbents whose terms are up is considered vulnerable, Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia. He's facing a tough challenge from former Gov. George Allen. But the Democrats still have to fight to maintain control of their once-secure, but now open seats.

That became even more difficult two weeks ago when Nebraska Senator Kerrey, a very secure incumbent, decided to step down. "I don't think any Republican had a chance against him. But now, all bets are off," says John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. "It's a very Republican state, and Kerrey was accorded a kind of special status as a celebrity. He was the closest thing we had to a national figure."

The Democrats are hoping the popular former Gov. Ben Nelson will jump into the void. The Republicans are scrambling to come up with the strongest challenger they can. So far, seven have voiced an interest.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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