Voters Not Swayed by Scandal

Despite the hullabaloo, the Clinton scandal doesn't appear to have much of an impact on this year's midterm elections.

After all the gyrations of the Clinton scandal, Election '98 is likely to wind up right where it would have if the words "Monica Lewinsky" never entered the national vocabulary.

On the eve of the Nov. 3 midterm election, Republicans look set to post small gains in the US House of Representatives, the Senate, and in governorships.

For Congress, a narrow widening of the GOP majority - today only 22 seats - points to two more years of limited ability to effect major policy changes. Instead, analysts expect both parties to focus on the race to capture the White House in 2000.

In tomorrow's vote, the GOP is also expected to make a net gain in the number of seats it holds in state legislatures, possibly even capturing a majority of seats for the first time in decades. That, say political analysts, could signal the most ominous trend for Democrats, who have seen their farm teams gradually shrink this decade - and are at a growing disadvantage as the parties prepare to redraw congressional districts in 2001.

On the plus side for Democrats, they look set to capture the California governor's office - the biggest prize of the election - for the first time in 16 years. Still, Republicans are poised to capture all the other big-state governorships, reinforcing a GOP edge in redistricting.

Across the country, in races big and small, it's local issues and the candidates themselves that will decide who wins - not any national tide of sentiment, as in 1994 when the GOP swept into control of Congress. Out of 435 US House seats, only about 10 percent are still "in play," and experts predict net GOP gains in the single digits, or at most in the mid-teens. Republicans currently control the House 228 to 206, with one Independent.

If Democrats can hold Republican gains to less than eight seats, the GOP would still control fewer seats than after the 1994 election, a point Democrats will highlight.

In the Senate, GOP talk a month ago of reaching a 60-seat majority - a key threshold that would allow it to cut off Democratic filibusters, a delaying technique that squashes bills - has vanished. The party is now looking at expanding its 55-to-45 seat majority by one to three seats.

"It's going to be, basically, an incumbent year," says independent pollster John Zogby.

Some individual races, though, are going down to the wire: Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin is fighting for his political life with both hands tied behind his back. A leading proponent of campaign-finance reform, he has resisted special-interest money in his campaign, while challenger Mark Neumann is benefiting from a last-minute flood of ads on his behalf.

In Kentucky, the contest that pits Rep. Jim Bunning (R) against Rep. Scotty Baesler (D) is probably the closest Senate race in the country. For Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), Kentucky's other senator and chairman of the Republican Senate campaign committee, winning that seat is his top priority. He has lavished help on Mr. Bunning in the form of money, ads, and personal staff.

One of the greatest areas of suspense in tomorrow's vote centers on the voters themselves: Who will turn out? In the primaries, turnout hit record lows, averaging 17.5 percent of eligible voters nationwide. Usually, low primary turnout presages low general election participation, but the insertion of a big issue in the interim could skew that.

Enter the president's acknowledgment on Aug. 17 that he misled the public about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Thus, says nonpartisan analyst Del Ali, of Mason Dixon Political Research in Laurel, Md, "turnout may be higher than expected."

"There are conservative Republicans who want to send a message to the Clintons, and energized Democrats who want to send a message to [independent counsel] Ken Starr," he says.

Consider Georgia Restivo, a New York fashion designer who calls herself a Democrat but hasn't voted in years. This time, she's registered and ready to pull the lever for Rep. Charles Schumer (D), who's locked in a fierce battle over the Senate seat held by Alfonse D'Amato (R).

"All this business against Clinton is a travesty," she says.

Overall, though, polling analysts say the Lewinsky factor will give a slight advantage to Republican candidates.

But it's the large question mark over who will actually vote that has activists on both sides on tenterhooks. Low turnout favors the Republicans, higher turnout favors the Democrats.

"This is becoming one of the most difficult ones to call I've seen in a while," says Republican consultant Doug Thompson, who works for the Eddie Mahe Co. "We have no idea how many people are going to show up on Tuesday."

The Republican Party's last-minute attack ads against President Clinton, an effort to reenergize the GOP's core constituency, reflect that anxiety over turnout. Democrats' effort to spur turnout in the African-American community shows the flipside of the final endgame for both parties. African-Americans overwhelmingly prefer Democrats, but tend to turn out slightly less than the public as a whole.

With turnout expected to be less than 40 percent of voters, both parties know every vote is that much more important. Any voting blocs that can be swayed to turn out in greater proportion can prove decisive in a close race.

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