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The Nation

'02 Elections Shape Up as Cliffhanger

January 01, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Although the 2002 midterm congressional elections are still 10 months away, a combination of factors--from President Bush's soaring popularity to candidate recruitment--are boosting Republican chances of not only holding control of the House but also retaking the Senate.

Historically, the party in control of the White House tends to lose seats in Congress two years after a president is elected.

But this year's races now appear to be a tossup in the latest surveys, Democratic and Republican strategists say.

With control of both the House and Senate at stake, both parties are preparing to pour massive funds into a few dozen contests and dispense legislative favors to help shaky incumbents.

The tight campaign also will ripple through the congressional agenda, as lawmakers weigh competing pressures: whether to raise money and score political points, or cut bipartisan deals.

"It's going to be a year that can obviously go either way, depending on the issues and where the country is in November," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Several recent developments have favored Republicans as the party seeks to win back what it briefly held at the outset of 2001: full control of both the executive and legislative branches of government.

In the House, the once-a-decade redrawing of 435 district lines to account for population changes in the 2000 census now appears to have favored incumbents to an unusual degree. Analysts say the GOP could pick up one or two seats through the process. Those trends would likely bolster the slim 222-211 House Republican majority.

In the Senate, an even slimmer 50-49-1 Democratic majority suffered a string of year-end legislative embarrassments. Moreover, party insiders say, Republicans were able to recruit polished candidates to challenge vulnerable Democratic incumbents and compete for three open seats.

Looming above both contests is President Bush, who has robust public approval since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made him a wartime president.

While those approval ratings are likely to fall at some point, the doubts about the legitimacy and stature of the Republican president have evaporated. So has the momentum Democrats gained after retaking the Senate in June through a historic partisan defection, when James M. Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party to become an independent.

"The Bush people are right now breathing a sigh of relief," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent Washington political analyst. "Compared to six months earlier, they've got to be happy."

A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll tracking the 2002 congressional races shows a Republican resurgence. In June, Democrats held a 50%-43% edge among adults surveyed nationwide on their preferences for local candidates. By December, the GOP had pulled slightly ahead, 46%-44%.

Such generic polls are an imperfect gauge of the political dynamics in Congress. The race for the Senate is really about 34 statewide contests. And the race for the House amounts to 435 local matchups across the country. Only a fraction in either case will be truly competitive.

Any number of variables could yet swing back toward the Democrats before next November--especially if the economy remains stagnant and voters blame the Bush administration.

Charlie Cook, another independent Washington political analyst, said the swirl of factors influencing the 2002 midterm elections is as complicated as any he has ever seen: a broad but not necessarily deep recession; a national groundswell of support for an unprecedented anti-terrorism campaign; and the aftermath of the extraordinary dead-heat election of 2000.

"You have currents on the surface, and then you have undercurrents, and you don't know which ones are going to be dominant, which ones are going to last and which aren't," Cook said. He believes Democrats have lost a tactical edge since Sept. 11 but says the House and Senate races are tossups.

One current flowing against Republicans is history.

The challenge now facing Bush is that no president has ever wrested the Senate from an opposing party at the midterm since direct senatorial elections began in 1914. In 22 midterm tests since then, the presidential party gained ground in the Senate only four times--most recently in 1970.

The trend is even more pronounced in the House. Since the Civil War, the presidential party has lost seats in every midterm election except 1934 and 1998. The last Republican president to enjoy a GOP House majority, Dwight D. Eisenhower, lost it for good two years into his first term. The same befell President Clinton when the Democrats lost the House in 1994.

In 2002, much will depend on the size and shape of the House battleground. For months, the two parties have skirmished over how states will remap congressional districts. So far, the result is mainly a draw.

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