WASHINGTON — By targeting regional economic problems and other local grievances, Democrats have driven to within striking distance of taking control of the U.S. Senate in Tuesday's midterm election, a victory that would help them regain the political initiative they lost in President Reagan's 1980 landslide.
To achieve this long-cherished objective, however, the Democrats must overcome two bulwarks of Republican defense: a multimillion-dollar advantage in campaign funds and President Reagan's last-ditch campaigning.
Reagan has campaigned with even more than his usual energy and partisan force, because a Democratic victory in the Senate would almost certainly cost him dearly in the last two years of his presidency.
Dozen States Crucial
In the closing hours of this bitterly fought election, strategists for both sides agreed on at least one conclusion: The outcome depends on results of still-too-close-to-call contests in a dozen or so states scattered from the heart of Dixie to the Pacific shore.
Counting no fewer than eight races that were "dead even" as the campaign turned into the home stretch, Republican National Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. declared: "Probably the candidate who makes the last mistake will lose," a comment that reflected not only the closeness of the battle but also what many people considered to be the barren and negative quality of this year's political debate.
Nonetheless, Democrats claimed to feel relatively confident about gaining Republican-held seats in three states--Florida, Maryland and Nevada--while Republicans are just about as sure of picking up one Democratic seat, in Missouri. That adds up to a net Democratic gain of two.
As a result, to score the net gain of four seats that is required to reverse the present 53-47 Republican majority in the Senate, Democrats must net only two more seats from a cluster of most vulnerable GOP targets, including Alabama, Idaho, North Carolina, North and South Dakota and Washington. At the same time, however, they have to protect their flanks in California, Colorado and Louisiana, where Democratic seats are threatened by Republican takeovers.
34 Seats at Stake
Of the 34 seats at stake, 22 are now in GOP hands, giving the Democrats their biggest overall target in years.
One reason the Senate has dominated this midterm election from the beginning is that Tuesday's vote is expected to produce little change in the Democratic-controlled House. Democrats are expected to pick up about 10 seats or so, which--as Republicans point out--would be a much smaller gain than the opposition party normally makes in off-year elections.
But Democrats point out that they are starting from a high base point, with a 253-180 House majority.
The implications for the national political future of the struggle for the Senate are far-reaching. Republican retention of Senate control would help the President avoid the lame duck label in his last two years in office, and provide further fuel for the continuing Republican drive to become the nation's majority party, particularly when combined with expected GOP gains in the gubernatorial races.
(The GOP's favorable gubernatorial outlook is largely because 27 of the 36 governorships at stake in Tuesday's vote are now controlled by Democrats and 14 of the 27 Democratic incumbents are not seeking reelection. Republicans are particularly hopeful of taking two big Southern states, Texas and Florida, now held by the Democrats.)
For the Democrats, winning the Senate would mean control of the Senate's potent committee machinery, allowing them to spend the next two years challenging Reagan's appointments, certainly including any he might make to fill Supreme Court vacancies, and also to probe and poke into the operations of the Reagan Administration.
Meanwhile the Democrats would be better able to promote their own policy agenda and thus lay groundwork for retaking the White House in 1988.
President Reagan made a televised appeal to voters Sunday night, declaring that "I need your help," asking that they continue to support his presidency and his policies by voting Republican on Tuesday. "Together you and I, with the help of the Republican team, can finish the job," he said in a $500,000 paid political announcement financed in part by corporate contributions to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Handicap for Democrats
The Senate campaign from the beginning has lacked any unifying theme or issue, an absence that some analysts have seen as a handicap for the Democrats.
Usually opposition parties make gains in off-year elections by turning them into national protests against an unpopular President and his policies. But in 1986 the Democrats have had to contend with a highly popular chief executive and the absence of any truly critical national predicament, such as a deep recession or a frustrating war.