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GOP Holding On in Senate; Close Battle for House


The race for control of Congress headed for a photo finish Tuesday as Republicans appeared to keep control of the Senate but numerous House races remained too close to call.

Early returns and exit polls indicated that Republicans had picked up enough Democratic seats in the Senate and held enough of their own to put a majority out of reach for the Democrats.

In the House, Democrats' hopes of regaining control rested on their ability to knock off a slew of freshman Republicans in tossup races scattered across the nation. But the GOP was hoping to offset those losses by snatching open seats from Democrats in the increasingly Republican South.

"It should be a very good day for us," predicted House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) early in the day.

But the earliest results were a mixed bag for the GOP. Republicans suffered a major upset in New Hampshire, where they lost a Senate seat and the governorship in a state that has been a traditional bastion of Republicanism. And Democrats fended off the GOP in high-profile Senate races in Georgia, Massachusetts, Illinois and New Jersey.

The GOP managed to hold onto the hotly contested Senate seat held by conservative icon Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and they picked up an Alabama Senate seat from the Democrats.

3 Seats From Control

Heading into the election, Republicans enjoyed a 53-47 majority in the Senate. Democrats need a net gain of three seats to secure a tie in the Senate--which would be broken in their favor by Vice President Gore--and four seats for outright control.

In the House, Republicans held a 235-198 majority (with two vacancies) and Democrats need a net gain of 19 seats to win back control.

The 1996 political climate was much less hostile to incumbents than in the last two congressional elections, but several incumbents could be sent packing.

The Senate was headed toward a marked regional shift: Democrats seemed to be in line to pick up seats in the North--with New Hampshire, Maine, South Dakota and Oregon the likeliest targets. But those advances were likely to be offset by Republican gains in the South. Such a swap would be in keeping with the trend of the last generation, which has seen the GOP base migrate from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt.

But in the South, Republicans expanded their hold on Dixie when Alabama voted to send GOP state Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions to the Senate over his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Roger Bedford. In South Carolina, 93-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond overcame reservations about his age and won reelection over Democratic real estate developer and textile heir Elliott Close. Republicans also were hoping for pickups in Louisiana and Arkansas.

John Kerry Prevails

Democrats managed to hang on to to two of their most hotly contested Senate seats. In Massachusetts' marquee race, Democratic Sen. John Kerry fended off a tough, costly challenge from GOP Gov. William F. Weld. In Georgia, the race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn was won by Democrat Max Cleland, who had been losing ground to GOP nominee Guy Millner in the waning days of the campaign.

And in New Jersey, Democrats won one of the nastiest fights of the year. Rep. Bob Torricelli (D-N.J.) beat fellow Rep. Dick Zimmer (R-N.J.) in the struggle to succeed retiring Sen. Bill Bradley.

Democrats suffered a setback in Nebraska, where GOP businessman Chuck Hagel defeated popular Democratic Gov. Ben Nelson. Because that seat had been held by a Democrat, it dimmed prospects of a Democratic takeover of the Senate.

In Iowa, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was facing a surprisingly tough fight from Rep. Jim Lightfoot (R-Iowa), a late-starting, come-from-behind challenger. Some Democrats attributed Harkin's surprising weakness to a late attack on Harkin for opposing a bill outlawing late-term "partial birth" abortions.

In House races, voters across the country were splitting evenly between Democratic and Republican candidates, according to exit polls conducted by Voter News Service for Associated Press and five television networks.

The contests are so close in many races that the outcome may not be known until absentee ballots are counted.

The Voter News Service poll suggests that late-stage developments in the House campaign may have helped Republicans. Almost one in 10 voters interviewed said they decided whom to vote for in the last three days--and of those, 56% chose Republicans.

However, by a margin of almost 2 to 1, those surveyed expressed a negative view of Gingrich and half the voters interviewed said their opinion of him affected their decision in the House election.

Southern Races

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