The campaign to elect America's 100th Congress gets underway in earnest this week with primaries in three states, including a key race in North Carolina. Experts see the '86 campaign as pivotal: It will be the last time American voters can shape the political agenda of Ronald Reagan's presidency through the ballot box.
It will determine whether Mr. Reagan will have a Republican Senate during his final two years, or will be forced to deal with a Congress that is entirely Democratic.
It will signal whether Democrats are making a comeback as the 1988 presidential election approaches.
All eyes will be focused in the coming campaign on the 34 races for the US Senate. While there will also be keen interest in contests for the US House and the governorships, analysts say the Senate races will determine the major winners and losers of Election '86.
A major gubernatorial contest was set up Saturday in the Texas primary when Republicans nominated former Gov. Bill Clements to face Democratic Gov. Mark White in the November election. Mr. White ousted then-incumbent Governor Clements in 1982.
Republicans control the Senate by a narrow 53-47 margin. If past is prologue, historians tell us the GOP can expect to lose seven Senate seats this year. That would put Democrats in control of both the House and the Senate. But in many ways, these are not ordinary times -- and the elections may defy history.
Ronald Reagan has been one of the most popular chief executives of the 20th Century. He enjoys both an economic boom at home and peace abroad. Will voters really want to disappoint him?
The President is expected to pull out all the political stops this fall. Voters can expect to see Reagan jetting into every region of the country to save his party's Senate major city. Also bolstering GOP hopes is a rich campaign treasury. The party, and many of its candidates, are flush with cash.
Experts say that because of all these factors, the GOP has an excellent opportunity, despite historical precedent, to cling to its control of the Senate, even though it may be by a margin of only one or two seats.
Democrats, meanwhile, see the 1986 Senate races as the beginning of their campaign to regain power in Washington. The momentum from a Senate victory, they say, could lead to a Democratic sweep of the House, Senate, and White House in 1988.
David Johnson, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, points to more than a dozen Republican-held seats he says are vulnerable: Maryland (the most vulnerable), Florida (second most vulnerable), South Dakota, Wisconsin, Nevada, Idaho, North Carolina, Washington, Oklahoma, Alaska, Alabama, North Dakota, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.
The GOP has its own list of Democratic seats that could swing Republican, including Louisiana, Missouri, Colorado, and California. But there's little doubt that it's the Republicans who are on the hot seat.
The crucial elections begin on Tuesday when voters go to the polls for primary elections in Ohio, Indiana, and North Carolina.
The North Carolina race is getting the most White House attention.
North Carolina Sen. John P. East, a conservative cohort of Sen. Jesse Helms, is retiring. Conservatives desperately want another Helms man to replace him.
Their choice was former US Ambassador to Romania David Funderburk, a political science professor at Baptist-affiliated Campbell University.
But the Funderburk campaign hasn't gone as well as hoped. Veteran US Rep. James T. Broyhill, the wealthy scion of a furniture-manufacturing family, also entered the race, and now is favored for the Republican nomination. He's considered a moderate.
That could be bad news for Democrats, who are expected to nominate former Gov. Terry Sanford, either in the May primary, or the June runoff. Although Governor Sanford looks strong in some polls, experts give the nod to Republicans if there is a Broyhill-Sanford showdown.
The other two primaries on Tuesday are less interesting. In Ohio, Sen. John Glenn should be nominated once again as the Democratic candidate against the expected winner of the Republican race, US Rep. Thomas N. Kindness. Senator Glenn, now leading 3-to-1 over Mr. Kindness in the polls, will be heavily favored in November.
In Indiana, GOP Sen. Dan Quayle is unopposed in his renomination bid. He's heavily favored in November against his probable Democratic opponent, Jill Long, a member of the city council in Valparaiso.
Meanwhile, here's what the experts are saying about the US Senate races in a few other key states:
California. If Republicans pull together after picking their candidate in a crowded June primary, Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston might possibly be beaten.
Nevada. GOP Sen. Paul Laxalt is retiring, perhaps to run for the White House. Republican insiders are worried his seat could be lost.
Colorado. With Democratic Sen. Gary Hart retiring to run for president, Republicans could pick up this seat -- but it will be close.
Wisconsin. GOP Sen. Bob Kasten should have waltzed back into office, but an arrest for drunken driving has put him on the endangered list.
Missouri. Experts call the race for this seat, vacated by Democrat Thomas F. Eagleton, a tossup.
Florida. Sen. Paula Hawkins, a Republican, is in deep trouble in her reelection bid against Democratic Gov. Bob Graham.
Idaho. Sen. Steve Symms (R) is locked in a battle that could be determined by just a few thousand votes.
Louisiana. A Republican loss in Florida could be offset with a GOP win in this state, where Sen. Russell B. Long (D) is stepping down.
Maryland. Just about everybody gives this Republican seat to the Democrats. GOP Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. is retiring.
Vermont. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D) is favored over former Gov. Richard Snelling (R), but that could change.