Up for grabs

Key contests in a crucial election

Seven seats. That's the difference between Republican and Democratic control of Congress.

Of the hundreds of contests that factor into this election, only a handful are tight enough to warrant close inspection.

Click on a colored state to explore the key races in 2002.

Republicans now hold a six-seat edge in the House, while Democrats have a precarious majority in the Senate. History suggests Democrats have the advantage, since the party out of the White House almost always gains seats in midterm elections. Indeed, even though President Bush is enjoying unusually high approval ratings, his coattails appear tucked in.

Despite strong backing for Bush's leadership on foreign policy and in the war on terrorism, midterm contests are determined more by political personalities and local issues than the president's performance. Still, Bush has raised a record-smashing $140 million, giving Republicans across the country the ability to blanket the airwaves with campaign ads in the closing days of the election season.

Control of Congress is always an election consideration, but the untimely passing of Paul Wellstone has made the balance of power question top of mind.

In close House races both parties are arguing that a vote for their candidate is a vote for control over the direction of national politics for the next two years.

In Utah's Second District, for example, the race between Democratic incumbent Jim Matheson and Republican John Swallow has been fought almost entirely on the issue of control of the House. Although Matheson is a very conservative Democrat, often voting with the White House, Republicans have poured money and big-name supporters into the district during the campaign.

Tom Davis of Virginia, head of the committee that elects Republicans to Congress, told the voters of Utah, "Republican majority is in jeopardy. Control of the House could very well swing on how this vote turns out in the 2nd District."

Outside of Washington, Democrats like their prospects in several gubernatorial contests. Wins in states like Maryland and Pennsylvania would not only reverse the tide of Republican victories in the 1990s, but help establish key electoral footholds for Democrats in their bid to recapture the White House in 2004.

Commentary: A search for meaning in the November election

Washington Bureau Chief David Cook has been grilling bacon, eggs, and policymakers at Monitor Breakfasts this campaign season.

A journalist's life – at least at The Christian Science Monitor – is a search for meaning.

So it is tough when the meaning of events remains elusive. But that's what seems to be happening with November's elections. To paraphrase Winston Churchill "This pudding has no theme."

While races in individual states have hot-button issues, no unifying national themes have emerged.

Voters are disappointed with government, says pollster John Zogby. "I see this politics of disappointment not benefiting one party or the other," he says. "The mood today is down with whoever is up."

Dan Balz, the respected Washington Post political correspondent, writes "American voters are distracted, anxious, and unsure, driven to vote – or not – by a laundry list of issues without an overriding theme."

Explanations for the themeless state of our national political pudding vary with the observers' affiliation. Ken Mehlman, President Bush's political director, told reporters at a Monitor lunch last week that the president's "popularity and his leadership ... prevented the other side from trying to nationalize" issues in the election.

Democrats are more likely to blame the lack of national themes to their own party's ineptitude than on Mr. Bush's brilliance. Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council under President Clinton, says, "Democrats have, at times, been too timid in making their economic critique of President Bush, perhaps because we are ... considering war."

Pollster Zogby is more blunt. Congressional Democrats "squandered a political opportunity by not making a statement against the war," he says. Such a declaration, he said, "would have brought home a lot of Democrats."

Our themeless state is a temporary phenomenon. When this off-season election ends, the 2004 president campaign will begin in earnest. A bevy of would-be presidents will begin a relentless – and highly vocal – search for themes that resonate with voters.

It will make this pudding seem like a blessing.

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