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GOP Rolls Up Gains Across U.S. : Elections: Party could gain control of the Senate and is on its way to electing largest House bloc in half a century. Rostenkowski appears to be in deep trouble.

November 09, 1994|ROBERT SHOGAN and DAVID LAUTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Riding a tide of voter discontent with Democratic rule in Washington, Republicans Tuesday moved toward control of the Senate for the first time in eight years and were electing their largest House contingent in half a century.

Democrats were suffering particularly harsh losses across the South, where exit polls conducted for the Associated Press and the television networks indicated that 60% of voters had cast ballots for the GOP. Elsewhere in the nation, the two parties were running roughly at parity, even in the traditional Democratic stronghold of the Northeast.

Republicans--who had held 44 Senate seats to 56 for the Democrats--needed a net gain of seven seats to take control. The gain would give them control of all Senate committee apparatus and give them far-reaching power to curb the power of the President's legislative agenda and to conduct investigations and reject nominations.

The Republicans jumped out to an early lead in the race toward acquiring those seven seats--winning races in six states where retirements by incumbent Democrats had left their party vulnerable--Maine, Michigan, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Arizona--and knocking off a second seat in Tennessee by defeating incumbent Sen. Jim Sasser.

One of the most powerful Democrats in the Senate, Sasser had hoped to become majority leader after Sen. George J. Mitchell of Maine announced his retirement.

In the House, some of the Democrats' biggest names appeared to be in deep trouble. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee until his indictment earlier this year on charges stemming from the House Post Office scandal, seemed headed for defeat, for example.

With 32% of the vote counted, Rostenkowski trailed his opponent, Michael Flannigan, an attorney, by 58% to 42%. Despite his indictment, Rostenkowski had been so supremely confident of his reelection that he had barely bothered to campaign, not even printing campaign literature--an act of hubris that had stunned even operatives in Chicago's once-legendary Democratic political machine.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) also was locked in an extremely tight race, officials of both parties said. No House Speaker has been unseated since before the Civil War.

In Senate contests, Democrats received a major break when Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) held onto his seat in a bitter three-way contest with Iran-Contra figure Oliver L. North and independent J. Marshall Coleman, a Republican who had been recruited to run against North by the state's senior senator, Republican John W. Warner.

In Massachusetts, Democrats also received an expected boost when Edward M. Kennedy, probably the leading voice of liberalism in the Senate, beat back the most serious challenge of his career from Republican Mitt Romney, son of the automobile executive and onetime Michigan Gov. George Romney.

With victories likely from Democratic incumbents in other races across the country, that appeared to leave control of the Senate hanging on whether two Democratic incumbents, Dianne Feinstein in California and Harris Wofford in Pennsylvania, could keep their seats and on whether the Democrats could win back at least one seat now held by a Republican.

The best prospect for a Democratic pickup was in Minnesota, where Democrats hoped that their candidate, Ann Wynia, could defeat Republican Rep. Rod Grams and pick up the seat left vacant by the retirement of Republican Dave Durenberger.

Another possibility was in Washington state, where Democrat Ron Sims, a Seattle councilman, mounted a strong challenge to Republican incumbent Slade Gorton.

But Democratic chances for retaining their majority seemed slim and some members of the party appeared to have given up hope before final returns were in. "You know, I've never been in a minority before," Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.) said after leaving a White House reception Tuesday night.

In mid-afternoon, Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos briefed White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and other senior aides on early reports from the field. Asked about the mood of the gathering, a senior official said: "It's no fun being at a political funeral."

Later, White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers told reporters: "I think the President will want to heal the wounds and close the gaps as quickly as possible."

Myers said that Clinton "stands ready to work with them (the Republicans) and it will be up to the Republican side as to how they respond."

Republicans by contrast were confident. "We're going to win a Republican majority in the Senate," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), who headed the Republican Senate campaign committee. "This election has turned into a referendum on Bill Clinton and his record. I think people are saying they want to stop taxing and regulating."

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