Contest for Capitol Hill Grabs Political Spotlight

GOP quietly makes gains that may keep it in majority

With less than two weeks to go before election day, Republicans still appear likely to keep control of the United States Senate. And while the future of the House of Representatives is less certain, the GOP appears to have reversed its slide and may be on the comeback trail to keep its House majority.

The race for Congress is turning out to be one of the closest in modern history. It is starting to dominate attention in the waning days of Campaign '96, in the absence of any dramatic moves in the presidential contest. "The GOP numbers have firmed up in the last week or 10 days," says Charles Cook, editor of the Washington-based Cook Political Report.

Analysts agree voter turnout will be a crucial factor in determining the victors.

In the Senate, 12 key races currently rated by observers as close or toss-ups - six Republican seats and six Democratic - will decide the issue.

Democrats could lose open seats in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and New Jersey, as well as those of incumbents Paul Wellstone in Minnesota and John Kerry in Massachusetts. Republicans in the too-close-to-call category are Sens. Larry Pressler in South Dakota and Bob Smith in New Hampshire, and the party could lose open seats in Colorado, Kansas, Maine, and Oregon.

The electoral math, however, continues to favor the Republicans, who currently have a 53-to-47 majority. To regain Senate control, Democrats must make a net gain of three seats. So they have to hang on to all their vulnerable slots, plus take half of the vulnerable GOP seats. But Republican Jeff Sessions looks set to defeat Democrat Roger Bedford in Alabama, taking away a Democratic slot. That means the Democrats would have to win eight of the 10 tossups to control the upper house - something few observers expect.

"I don't see how we'd lose the Senate," says GOP political consultant Ron Kaufman. "Too many Democrat seats and not enough Republican seats are in play."

US House is still in play

Opinion is more divided about the House, where Republicans hold a 235-to-198 majority. (One seat is held by an independent and one is vacant.) The outlook is so volatile that the GOP could actually pick up a few seats. Democrats need to win 19 seats to take the Speaker's gavel.

"It looks like 50-50," says Liz Wilner, who watches House races for the Cook Political Report. "I can see the GOP hanging on by about a couple of seats." But she adds that, in the best scenario for them, Democrats could see a double-digit gain.

The outcome hangs on two categories of districts: about 40 vulnerable freshmen Republicans and about 20 open Democratic districts in the South. If the Democrats hang on to enough of their open seats and defeat a substantial number of GOP freshmen, they could regain control of the House. But if the Republicans grab enough Southern Democratic seats in a region that increasingly votes Republican, and fend off challenges in some freshman districts, they will keep control. CongressDaily, a newsletter, estimates that as many as 12 districts in each category may change parties.

One ranking has the GOP leading in five open Democratic districts in the South - Alabama's Third and Fourth, Mississippi's Third, Oklahoma's Third, and Texas' 12th - while four others are tossups - Florida's 11th, Louisiana's Fifth, North Carolina's Seventh, and Texas' Fifth.

Meanwhile, a passel of GOP freshmen are fighting for their political lives. Four - Michael Flanagan of Illinois, James Longley of Maine, Fred Heineman of North Carolina, and Randy Tate of Washington - are currently trailing their Democratic challengers. Another 24 contests are even. More Democratic than Republican incumbents are in close races: 13 versus three.

"The House will come down to a half a dozen seats, either way," says Mr. Cook. "We're in for a long night on Nov. 6."

"I think the Democrats will pick up 11 seats - less than needed for the Republicans to lose control," says Ken Rudin of The Hotline daily political report.

Analysts say Washington is a good state to see how the race for the House is shaping up. Two years ago the GOP won big there, gaining six seats and knocking off five Democratic incumbents, including Speaker Thomas Foley. Now one of those GOP freshman districts is leaning Democratic, three are tossups, and two are tilting Republican.

The GOP freshmen, along with several incumbents in marginal districts, have been battered by a year-long, $35 million AFL-CIO ad campaign claiming that "extremist" Republicans, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, want to slash Medicare, cut education spending, and abandon environmental-protection laws - charges the GOP hotly denies. The GOP strategy has been to hold its fire until now, then unleash a multimillion-dollar rebuttal campaign funded by the GOP congressional campaign committees. Business and conservative groups will also weigh in as the election approaches. This, Republicans hope, will turn the tide in some tossup races.

The Republican counterattack, combined with the return of incumbents to their districts to campaign, may already be having an effect. "In late September and early October there was a trend toward the Democrats," says Mr. Rudin. "But the Republicans have reacted, adjusted, and shored up their weak points."

The GOP strategy of waiting until the end of the campaign to counter Democratic and labor attacks has its share of critics within the party. "It's like sending out a patrol after the [enemy] army's gone through," Mr. Kaufman says.

Key is voter turnout

Analysts agree, however, that much depends on voter turnout. Republicans are concerned that their voters may decide to stay home in the face of a lackluster campaign by Bob Dole. Democrats worry about overconfidence.

Cook refutes the notion that Republicans might stay home. He notes that Democrats turned out in large numbers in 1972 and 1984, even though ticket-toppers George McGovern and Walter Mondale were clearly headed for a shellacking.

"Polls are fun," Ann Lewis, deputy manager of the Clinton campaign, said last weekend. "But they don't elect anyone."

And the electorate continues to be volatile - or apathetic - to an unprecedented degree. "More seats are in play now than I've ever seen before," Kaufman says. "But interest is low on both sides ... it's just unbelievable."

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