WASHINGTON -- Back in the spring, Democrats were talking boldly -- and Republicans fretting openly -- about changing control of Congress. A switch of 11 seats in the November election would tip the House of Representatives into Democratic hands.
Today, the notion of a Democratic comeback seems more like a memory. As President Clinton struggles to put his sex scandal behind him, the center of political gravity has shifted in the other direction. The question now is how large Republican gains might be.
"The situation has changed dramatically," says Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes a newsletter on congressional elections. "In March and April, I thought there was an outside chance the Democrats might pick up a dozen seats. Now, Republicans look like they could easily pick up a dozen seats."
Republicans may do better than that. Increasingly within reach, some believe, is one of the GOP's most cherished goals: a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Gaining five seats would give Republicans a total of 60 -- and a degree of leverage over the Senate that they've never achieved in the modern era.
"Suddenly, 60 seats is in play," Rothenberg agrees. "I don't think it's likely. But it's probably as likely as 12 seats in the House was for the Democrats."
Along with others interviewed for this article, the independent analyst cautions that there is little empirical evidence to back up predictions that Clinton's troubles will hurt his party's candidates. Indeed, Clinton's admission that he had lied to the nation about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky produced no immediate change in the polls when voters were asked about their choices for Congress.
Still, the outlines of the midterm election are beginning to come into view, and they suggest that Republicans are likely to build on gains they made in 1994 and 1996. At stake in the Nov. 3 vote are all 435 seats in the House, 34 Senate seats and 36 governorships, including Maryland's.
Most of the attention will be focused on about 60 close House races scattered around the country and about a dozen states with competitive Senate races. Maryland is not projected to see a change in its congressional delegation. Gov. Parris N. Glendening's re-election effort, however, could be one of the more closely contested in the nation.
Earlier this year, Republican consultant Ralph Reed predicted little or no change in the makeup of the House, with a best-case scenario for the GOP of a 10-seat pickup and, worst-case, a loss of control. Now he foresees Republicans adding between five and 15 House seats, two to four Senate seats and three governorships.
"Republicans may be backing into a very successful election cycle, simply because the leader of the other party failed to act with proper discretion and judgment in his personal affairs," Reed says.
Alan Secrest, a Democratic campaign consultant, acknowledges that the Clinton scandal "makes it impossible for Democrats to take over the House." Democrats were always expected to face an uphill struggle in the sixth year of the president's administration, historically a time when the party in power in the White House has lost seats. But Clinton's troubles, Secrest says, "present a further obstacle for the Democrats, if they persist. And I think they will."
Democrats are girding for possible further revelations about Clinton's behavior, which could emerge if independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr delivers a report to Congress before the election.
Even without additional disclosures, strategists from both parties describe at least three ways in which the Clinton scandal could damage his party's chances:
Turned-off Democrats. Disgruntled voters, especially women, are a major concern for Democrats. If the Clinton scandal prompts more of them to stay home on Election Day, it might prove devastating. "One or two points in turnout," says Democratic consultant Paul Maslin. "That could matter in a number of races."
Turned-on Republicans. By all accounts, the most energized voters are social and religious conservatives, who will be voting for Republican candidates by an overwhelming margin. "They really are upset about the president's behavior," says Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster, who expects this core Republican group to turn out in heavy numbers as a means of conveying its disgust with the Democratic president.
Obscuring the message. With the best economy in 30 years, high poll ratings for the way Clinton is doing his job and a largely contented electorate, many politicians thought this might become only the second time since the Civil War that a president's party had gained House seats in a midterm election. But the Democrats' campaign agenda -- including campaign finance reform, a Patient's Bill of Rights and protection of Social Security -- is being blotted out by scandal. In California's dead-even Senate contest, for instance, questions about the president's sexual behavior overshadowed other issues in a TV debate last week between Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and Republican challenger Matt Fong.
Some strategists warn that it is too soon to gauge the effect of Clinton's troubles on the election. GOP pollster McInturff has not adjusted his forecast of a Republican pickup of four to eight House seats. He says that for double-digit Republican gains to occur, a national anti-Clinton tide would have to develop, and there is no evidence of that.
Democrat Maslin said his polls show no erosion of support for Democratic candidates.
"Are we worried? Of course. Every Democrat is worried more today," says the California-based consultant. "But I don't see any evidence that it is having an effect. The overall mood is holding."
Other signs are more ominous for the Democrats. Perhaps the most telling last week were the actions of the top Democrat in the House. Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, apparently reflecting the growing restiveness of his election-minded colleagues, called Clinton's behavior reprehensible and spoke repeatedly about impeachment proceedings. Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, the Democratic national chairman, said publicly what many Democrats were indicating in private: that Clinton needed to be more contrite.
At the same time, senior Democrats who might have been counted on to support the president were largely silent. Many congressional Democrats have adopted a wait-and-see approach, noting that they may be forced to act on Starr's report.
Republicans feel no such restraint. After Clinton's speech, a growing number were calling on him to resign. Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich counseled caution, but one of his top lieutenants, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, is spearheading a campaign to pressure Clinton to quit.
That effort could run headlong into an electorate that is weary of the Lewinsky matter and says it wants Clinton to remain in office. If Republicans push too hard, they could feed the public's suspicion that partisan politics is behind Washington's current obsession.
"It's a very big danger," says GOP consultant Reed. "This is a critical moment for Republicans, filled with both opportunity and potential disaster if they overplay their hand."
Since early this year, predictions that Clinton's legal troubles would be fatal for him and his party have failed to prove out. As the election nears, the search will intensify for signs that Democrats are deserting the president, fresh evidence that his political situation is deteriorating.
Over the past two weeks, some Democratic candidates have distanced themselves from the president.
In two tossup races for House seats in Pennsylvania -- in the suburban 13th District outside Philadelphia, and in Allentown's 15th District -- the Democratic nominees now say they would not want Clinton to campaign for them this fall.
In Cincinnati, Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who, at Clinton's urging, is challenging Republican Rep. Steve Chabot, may have a "schedule conflict" that will prevent her from appearing with Clinton when the president comes to town next month, an aide has said.
Other Democrats, however, remain eager for Clinton's help, including Glendening, who expects the president to appear at a fund-raiser in Maryland this fall.
For the moment, no one is predicting a repeat of the 43-seat loss that Republicans suffered after Watergate in 1974. At the same time, the "status quo" election many had expected this year seems likely to be anything but politics as usual.
Incumbents at risk
Republicans enjoy a 55-45 advantage in the Senate. If they pick up five seats this November, they'll have a filibuster-proof majority of 60. That would prevent the Democratic minority from blocking action on controversial measures with endless debate.
Among the Democratic seats in jeopardy are those held by four endangered incumbents, plus the open seats being vacated by retiring Sens. John Glenn of Ohio and Wendell H. Ford of Kentucky.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, California
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina
Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, Illinois Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada
REPUBLICANS: Sen. Lauch Faircloth, North Carolina
Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, New York
Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri
Pub Date: 8/31/98