Several Races Will Stir Placid Election Year

Voters are leaning toward the status quo, but Starr investigation and lagging rural economies cause uncertainty for Congress.

Political analyst Bernadette Budde spices up her predictions by choosing theme songs for election years.

This year she nominates "Let's Hang On to What We Got," a song from the 1960s by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

Her choice reflects the judgment of election-watchers here that, barring unforeseen political or economic developments, it looks increasingly likely that November's balloting will leave Republicans still in control on Capitol Hill - and significantly, may even give them a few more seats.

"I feel confident in predicting sort of what it is right now," says Ms. Budde, vice president of the Business and Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC).

"What it is right now" is a Republican grip on the Senate, 55 to 45, and a skin-of-the-teeth 228 to 207 majority in the House. Few believe GOP control of the Senate is threatened. But the narrowness of House margin - a shift of 11 seats would hand power to the Democrats - makes it the contest to watch.

Some experts say the fallout from President Clinton's admission that he "misled" the nation about an improper relationship with former intern Monica Lewinsky will lead to a GOP pickup of several House seats. Desperate economic conditions in some rural districts could also affect the political dynamic.

Who will vote?

In any case, the party that best gets out the vote will have the advantage in a low-turnout, off-year election. Some believe Democratic voters may be demoralized by the president's troubles and stay home, while Republican voters will show up at the polls to vent their anger at Mr. Clinton.

The most optimistic prediction for House Democrats comes from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "We have about a 50-50 chance of taking back the 11 seats we need to take back the House," says spokeswoman Olivia Morgan. "We got in early enough [and] recruited strong candidates in key districts ... candidates who reflect the priorities of the districts in which they are running."

But outside observers agree the Democrats are swimming upstream. Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes the Rothenberg Political Report, predicts the Republicans will pick up 10 to 15 seats. That's a significant change from before Clinton's speech last week, when Mr. Rothenberg said the Democrats could pick up one or two seats. "A fundamental shift is under way," he says.

Conspiring against change

Incumbent reelection rates and the smaller-than-usual number of open seats work against radical change this year, writes Charles Cook of the Cook Political Report in National Journal's Cloakroom Web site. "With the House reelection rate averaging 95 percent in modern times, the rate this year is likely to be between 97 percent and 99 percent," Mr. Cook writes. On average, 40 seats have no incumbent; this year only 33 are open.

Political pros point to a set of contests that are key to who'll end up on top:

* Rep. Jon Fox (R) of Pennsylvania wins many nominations for Most Endangered Congressman. He won reelection to a second term in 1996 by 84 votes over Democrat Joseph Hoeffel, who's after him again.

* Rep. Jon Other congressmen who are considered particularly vulnerable include Rick White (R) of Washington and Democrats Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii and Lane Evans of Illinois.

* Rep. Jon Open GOP seats currently held by Reps. Joseph McDade of Pennsylvania, Linda Smith of Washington, and Mark Neumann of Wisconsin are must-wins for Democrats if they are to regain the majority. At the same time, Democrats have to defend open seats currently held by Reps. Scotty Baesler of Kentucky, Elizabeth Furse of Oregon, and Paul McHale of Pennsylvania.

* Rep. Jon As Ohio goes, so goes the House, Budde says. She's watching to see if Rep. Steve Chabot (R) and Rep. Ted Strickland (D) can hang on.

On the Senate side, the question is not whether Republican Sen. Trent Lott will have to hand over his majority leader's sign to Democrat Sen. Tom Daschle, but rather how big the GOP lead will be after Election Day. More Republicans could help Senator Lott as he grasps for the magic 60 votes he needs to break Democratic filibusters.

The guessing is he'll fall short. "I think the Republicans are pretty well positioned to pick up a seat or two in the Senate," Mr. Rothenberg says. Cook says the best case for Democrats would be to break even; the worst case, to lose five.

A key Senate race

The key race is likely to be in Kentucky, where Representative Baesler is battling Rep. Jim Bunning (R) in a bruising contest to succeed retiring Democratic whip Sen. Wendell Ford. Also of note is Illinois, where Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun faces questions about use of campaign funds as well as Republican state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.

Other Democrats on the threatened list include Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Barbara Boxer of California, although Senator Boxer may be gaining ground. Republicans hanging on include Sens. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina and perennial underdog Alfonse D'Amato of New York, who could once again benefit from a nasty primary to chose his Democratic opponent.

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