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Election Reflects National Parity

GOP will probably keep grip on the House while Democrats retain the Senate, analysts say. But neither party has any wiggle room for error.

November 03, 2002|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As the race for control of Congress sprints through its final weekend, voters appear poised to maintain the narrow division of power that has marked American politics for nearly a decade.

Analysts in both parties consider Republicans the favorite to maintain -- and possibly even expand -- their slender six-seat majority in the House. And Democrats seem positioned to maintain -- or enlarge -- their one-seat Senate majority. Enough races remained within reach, however, to sustain Republican hopes of a takeover.

What seems least likely on Tuesday are decisive gains for either party in either chamber. After months of campaigning, vast expenditures and endless cycles of attacks and counterattacks through televised ads, this election may not do much to alter the basic parity between the parties vividly demonstrated in the razor-thin 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

"The 2000 election was ultimately a story about how evenly divided the country is politically, and that story line is very much continued in 2002," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.

Because the country, and Congress, are so closely split, each party is operating with virtually no margin of error. By holding the House and gaining just a single seat in the Senate, Republicans would reestablish unified control of the federal government and greatly improve the odds for President Bush to advance his agenda in the next two years.

Alternately, if Democrats can take back the House while holding the Senate, they would be in position to highlight their ideas -- and perhaps place Bush on the defensive leading into his reelection campaign, just as a Democratic Congress did with his father in 1991 and 1992.

With Congress so evenly divided, virtually every competitive race around the country has become a proxy war between the national parties and their allied interest groups. The Senate, in particular, is so precariously balanced that just a few thousand voters -- or perhaps hundreds -- in states such as Colorado, New Hampshire and South Dakota are likely to decide which party holds the majority.

Behind the close races is an exquisite balance of conflicting forces.

Boosting Republicans have been Bush's high approval rating and a perception among many voters that the party is better able to handle national security and terrorism.

Boosting Democrats have been comparable advantages for their party on domestic issues such as Social Security and health care, along with widespread gloom over the economy. Many analysts believe, though, that the Democratic failure to articulate an alternative economic plan has prevented the party from establishing a consistent advantage when voters are asked which side can better produce prosperity.

These contrasting forces have produced an electoral environment where candidates have been slugging it out without help from a discernible national tailwind for either side.

"Everyone keeps waiting for this election to break toward one side or the other," said GOP pollster Bill McInturff. "Well, it doesn't have to break."

In all, voters this year are selecting 34 senators, 36 governors and all 435 members of the House.

These three groups of races have been moving in different directions. Democrats appear certain to gain ground in the governorships -- in part because Republicans are defending twice as many seats. The Senate is a toe-to-toe title fight that could see either party make small gains. And Republicans have grown increasingly optimistic about the prospects for retaining control of the House.

In the House races, history favors the Democrats. Since the Civil War, the party holding the White House has gained House seats in a president's first midterm election only once: in 1934, when the glow surrounding Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal propelled Democrats to a nine-seat advance.

But through the fall, Democrats have seen a number of once-promising races deteriorate. In four contests where redistricting has forced Democratic and Republican incumbents to run against each other, Republicans now hold clear advantages in three. Democratic challenges against such Republican representatives as Jim Nussle in Iowa, Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia and Rob Simmons in Connecticut appear to have faded. And Republicans have established advantages in open or new seats in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Georgia, Louisiana and New Hampshire that Democrats once targeted.

In their final assessments, the two major independent analysts tracking House races gave Republicans strong odds of holding the chamber. Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of a political newsletter, gave the GOP the advantage in 220 seats (two more than the 218 needed for a majority), Democrats the advantage in 207, with eight too close to call.

Charlie Cook, who publishes a competing political newsletter, identified 217 districts leaning toward the GOP, 202 toward the Democrats and 16 as too close to call.

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