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ELECTIONS '96

Vote Returns Indicate Republicans Will Maintain Their Grip on House

Election: Early patterns showed a seesaw battle for control. Later results suggested that Democrats would fall short of their takeover goal.

November 06, 1996|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Kentucky Democrat Mike Ward was one of the first to fall, a freshman hurt by unpopular votes on abortion and allegations of campaign finance misdeeds. After a tightly fought race, Ward succumbed to a Republican woman who advocates English as an official language and tougher sentencing laws for criminals.

But Ward's defeat was quickly offset by losses for North Carolina Republicans David Funderburk and Frederick K. Heineman, freshmen painted by their opponents as "extremist" puppets of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

And so it went Tuesday night.

As polls closed in the East and then the Midwest, the seesaw battle for control of the House of Representatives teetered--inconclusive until the sun set on elections in the West. Democrats, needing to pick up 19 seats to regain the House, were looking westward to where nine Republican incumbents and a single Democratic congressman, Rep. George E. Brown Jr. of San Bernardino, were locked in tight races.

But as the night wore on, returns and polls suggested the Democrats would fall more than 10 seats short of a House takeover. With the exception of Ward and Missourian Harold L. Volkmer, Democratic incumbents were holding on to virtually all of their seats throughout the East and Midwest, and Democratic challengers were faring well enough against vulnerable GOP freshmen.

But they were badly outpaced by Republicans in winning open seats, and Republicans looked to pick up a few more as votes were tallied throughout the West.

Among freshman Republicans, Tuesday's polling exacted a fairly heavy price throughout the East and the Midwest. In Illinois, Rep. Michael Patrick Flanagan, a freshman who ousted ethics-tainted House Democratic power Dan Rostenkowski in 1994, was himself ousted by state Rep. Rod Blagojevich, who assailed Flanagan as a robotic loyalist to Gingrich.

Other Republican firebrands who were swept in with the "contract with America" in 1994 appeared to have been swept out two years later on charges that their budget-cutting and anti-regulatory stances would hurt education, the environment and the elderly.

Among them were New Jersey's Bill Martini and New York's Daniel Frisa, whose challenger--with powerful backing from the Democratic National Committee--had assailed Frisa's opposition to an assault weapon ban. Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed and whose son was severely wounded in the Long Island Rail Road massacre of 1993, defeated Frisa. She entered politics, she said, to fight the National Rifle Assn.

In Indiana, Republican John Hostettler, a freshman who has occasionally positioned himself to the right of Gingrich, appeared headed for defeat at the hands of challenger Jonathan Weinzapfel, a former Democratic congressional aide. But elsewhere in the state, two threatened Republican freshmen, David M. McIntosh and Mark Edward Souder, beat back challengers Tuesday to win second terms.

For Connecticut Republican Gary Franks, even three terms did not prove enough incumbency to secure reelection. Franks, one of two African American Republicans in the House, was ousted by former state Sen. James H. Maloney.

Next door, Democrats appeared to have picked off Massachusetts' two lone Republicans, Reps. Peter I. Blute and Peter G. Torkildsen, as well. In Connecticut, Sam Gejdenson, an eight-term Democrat threatened with political extinction this year, managed to hold on to his seat.

One of the nation's most closely fought states was Ohio, where on the eve of the election, races in six of the 19 districts were considered too close to call. As President Clinton sewed up the state in the early evening, GOP freshman Rep. Frank A. Cremeans found his incumbency threatened by a surging Democratic state Rep. Ted Strickland in a rematch.

And second-termer Martin R. Hoke of Ohio, a Republican who has been a target of negative ads by labor unions, lost his seat to Dennis Kucinich, who was mayor of Cleveland at the time the city declared itself in default.

Another high-pressure state this year was Washington, where Republicans picked up six seats in 1994. Of those six this year, five were locked in tight contests late Tuesday.

In the Midwest, a $35-million ad campaign mounted by the labor unions against Republicans appeared to have helped tip scales toward Democrats. And along the West Coast, environmentalists were hopeful that their grass-roots efforts would help boost Democratic challengers.

Environmental activists in California, pointing to weekend polls, predicted that Andrea Seastrand (R-Shell Beach) would fall to her challenger, religion professor Walter Holden Capps, largely because of concerns over Seastrand's environmental positions. But late into the night, that race remained too close to call.

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