The Congressional Race

While the presidential race gets most of the national news media's attention, the contest for control of Congress is no less important or interesting.

Predictably, both parties claim they will win the majority of seats in the 105th Congress. The election math and public-opinion polling, however, appear to hand the Republicans a slight edge. Yet given the volatility of the electorate and the strange nature of the presidential race, which could affect voter turnout, anything can happen.

The Senate. There are 34 seats up for election this year, 19 currently held by Republicans and 15 by Democrats. Observers say about half of these are safe seats. Among the remainder, half are Democrat; the Democrats also have one more vulnerable open seat than does the GOP.

Thirteen contests involving six Democrat and seven GOP seats are key: The vulnerable Democrats are John Kerry in Massachusetts and Paul Wellstone in Minnesota, plus open seats in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and New Jersey.

The Democrats will have a hard time keeping all the Southern seats; already the Republican Party looks likely to pick off Alabama and Louisiana. Republican open seats in Colorado, Kansas, Maine, Oregon, and Wyoming are vulnerable, while Sens. Larry Pressler in South Dakota and Bob Smith in New Hampshire seem to be in real trouble.

Outlook: It does not now appear likely that the Democrats can win the three GOP seats they need to take control of the upper house.

The House of Representatives. Here speculation revolves around the fate of the 72 Republican freshmen, many of whom were elected by small margins in 1994. The Republican and Democratic congressional campaign chairmen both claim that their party will pick up 30 seats in November. Neither estimate is realistic. A more likely scenario is a net gain of five to 10 seats either way.

There are 53 open House seats; 30 currently held by Democrats and 23 by the GOP. Crucially, 18 of the Democrats' open seats are in the South and Southwest - areas where Republicans have made gains in recent years. One analysis says while 25 GOP freshmen are vulnerable, Republicans have a shot at 23 open Democratic seats.

Veteran observers point out that two states to watch are Washington and North Carolina, where Republicans made their biggest gains in 1994. Four of the most vulnerable GOP freshmen are from these delegations. Democrats have already grabbed one GOP seat in Louisiana, because of that state's nonpartisan primary, in which the top Republican placed third.

Outlook: As of today, it doesn't look as if the Democrats will gain the 19 seats needed to capture the lower house.

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