Cover Story

Who'll be king of the Hill?

As the Bush-Gore race grabs the spotlight, 34 smaller contests will decide control of the Senate

Issue: "Who'll be king of the Hill?," Oct. 7, 2000

in Buena Vista, Va.-Buena Vista, Va., is a peaceful throwback-but not one that politicians dare throw away. On Labor Day they descend on this quiet town for the traditional kick-off to the fall campaign season. By 8:30 a.m., more than 200 Republicans are seated for bacon, eggs, and stump speeches at the American Legion hall on Magnolia Street. The party chairman says a few words, as does the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, a half dozen state legislators, a sheriff, a U.S. representative, and the speaker of the state assembly. Eyelids start to get heavy, weighed down by an overdose of bacon fat and political promises. Suddenly, a TV spotlight switches on, and everyone snaps to attention. The hapless speaker at the podium drones on even as all eyes shift to the door at the rear of the hall. It's impossible to miss the star power of the tall, handsome man standing in the glare of the spotlight. Former Gov. George Allen is the man Virginians are counting on to remove Sen. Chuck Robb, the last remaining Democratic power in this increasingly Republican state. He's also the man the national GOP is counting on to preserve its thin majority in the U.S. Senate. And he's the man that 200 people in Buena Vista are counting on to wake them from their after-breakfast stupor. In the frenzy of a presidential election year, the race for Congress is often forgotten. When congressional races are mentioned, stories tend to focus on the House, where Democrats need to pick up just six seats to regain the majority they lost in 1994. But an epic battle is shaping up on the other side of Capitol Hill, as well. Following the death of Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), Republicans control the Senate by a count of 54-46. That means Democrats need a net gain of just four seats to tie, five to win. Given the smaller number of seats in play-34 in the Senate, compared to 435 in the House-a four-seat pickup is statistically much more difficult. But at this point, the Democrats don't mind difficult: Just a few months ago, most analysts would have called it impossible. No one-not even the Republicans-is calling it impossible anymore. With six weeks to go until Election Day, nearly one-third of this year's Senate races are still considered too close to call, leaving control of the upper chamber very much in doubt. Both parties are pouring millions of dollars into the unprecedented number of close races, and candidates are scrambling to shake millions of hands before Nov. 7. "I always like to run like I'm half a lap behind," said Gov. Allen of his hard-charging campaign style. "It makes you try harder. When you start doing the math, Nevada and Virginia are really the two key races. If we win this, the GOP will stay in the majority." He was certainly trying hard on Labor Day: During a parade down Magnolia Street that followed the candidates' breakfast, he crisscrossed from sidewalk to sidewalk, shaking every possible hand and engaging in the 15-second small-talk that marks a natural politician. Stopping at a battered Ford pickup parked along the curb, he had a three-sentence discussion of Medicare with the elderly couple inside. "I don't know about my husband, but I'm voting for you," said the woman in the passenger seat. "I hope you agree with your wife on this one," Mr. Allen hollered as he moved away from the truck and on to the next outstretched hand. An aide came behind him with a brochure, a bumper sticker, and a Tootsie Roll-the little bribes of democracy. Before the couple could explain their thinking on the race, two reporters were body-checked out of the way by a tall, angular woman who thrust her hand into the cab of the truck. "Hi, I'm Linda Robb, Chuck's wife," she bellowed with a pronounced drawl. "Hope we can count on your vote." Then she was off, bounding over a low hedge and ignoring an angry dog as she approached a family watching the parade from their front porch. Her husband, meanwhile, stuck pretty much to the middle of the road, walking slowly and deliberately, as if looking for friendly faces among the sea of Allen/Bush signs in this very Republican corner of the state. That Mr. Robb should have to work so hard for reelection is a testament to Mr. Allen's political star power. After 12 years in the Senate, Mr. Robb should be almost impossible to unseat. Typically, incumbents are vulnerable only in their first bid for reelection. Mr. Robb barely survived a 1994 squeaker against Oliver North, thanks largely to a conservative independent candidate who split the Republican vote. If Mr. North had prevailed in 1994, he would now be among the large GOP freshman class asking voters for a return ticket to Washington. It's those nine first-term senators who make 2000 such a dicey year for the Republicans. The conservative tidal wave that swept so many new faces into Congress was a high tide for the GOP. Now, with the waters receding, many of those freshmen find themselves battling for a foothold in rapidly shifting political sands. Of the nine seats currently ranked a toss-up, newcomers hold four. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), and Rod Grams (R-Minn.) all face tough campaigns in their first bid for reelection. So does Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee, still fresher than a freshman after taking over his late father's seat just 10 months ago. For social conservatives, the greatest loss from that list would be Mr. Ashcroft, an ordained minister and outspoken conservative who has been a blistering critic of the abortion industry and the Clinton administration's many scandals. He was also the principal architect of the Charitable Choice Act, a 1996 bill that helped reduce government discrimination against faith-based charities. His opponent, Gov. Mel Carnahan, is known mostly for vetoing the partial-birth abortion ban that passed the Missouri legislature by an 8-to-1 margin. The bad blood between the two candidates goes back many years, guaranteeing an expensive, nasty race that could have a major impact on the ideological makeup of the upper chamber. At the other extreme is Mr. Chafee. As a Republican in one of the most Democratic states in the nation, he's trying to convince voters that he's actually more liberal than his Democratic opponent, Rep. Bob Weygand. The Catholic Mr. Weygand, one of the few pro-life Democrats in the House, has said abortionists should lose their medical licenses-not a popular position in a left-leaning state. Not all the GOP freshmen are biting their nails, of course. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a solidly conservative vote, may be off the endangered species list now that he's opened up a consistent lead in the polls. Safer still are Olympia Snowe of Maine, a leading GOP liberal, as well as Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Mike DeWine (Ohio), Bill Frist (Tenn.), and Craig Thomas (Wyo.). The Democrats have no freshman seats to defend-a reminder of just how bad a year they had in 1994. The news for Republicans is brighter when it comes to open seats. Four Democrats are leaving the Senate this year, compared to just one Republican. With no incumbency advantage, three of those seats are toss-ups, and Republicans are competitive or favored in the other two. The most likely GOP pick-up in the entire nation comes in Nevada, where former Rep. John Ensign leads Ed Bernstein, an attorney and talk-show host, by up to 17 points. Two years ago, Mr. Ensign came within 428 votes of upsetting incumbent Sen. Harry Reid in the closest Senate race in the nation. That showing earned him the undying gratitude of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is pumping a flood of money into his battle for Richard Bryan's open seat. As a reliable pro-life vote during his two terms in the House, Mr. Ensign would be a valued conservative ally in the Senate. In Nebraska, maverick Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey sent the state party into a tailspin with his surprise resignation after two terms. Former Gov. Ben Nelson is favored to succeed him, but the heavily Republican state is one place the Democrats can't take for granted. Mr. Nelson currently leads in the polls-just as he did four years ago before losing to now-Sen. Chuck Hagel. Republicans have pinned their hopes on Attorney Gen. Don Stenberg, an evangelical Christian who defended the state's ban on partial-birth abortion before the Supreme Court. The religious right is working hard for Mr. Stenberg, and a big Bush turnout could help the Republicans score an upset. In three other open seats, the polls show a statistical dead heat. The race to succeed retiring Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan has perhaps drawn more interest-and certainly more money-than any other Senate race in history. Hillary Clinton has name recognition that other candidates can only dream of, yet her political baggage and her reputation as a carpetbagger have so far kept her below 50 percent in the polls. The media lost a whipping boy when Rudy Giuliani dropped out of the race, but Republicans gained a more attractive candidate in Rick Lazio, a Long Island congressman who is moderate on social issues. The race has already cost some $60 million, with tens of millions more still to be spent in the closing weeks of the campaign. This race could be a bellwether: If they can't hold onto a Democratic seat in a liberal state like New York, Democrats have little hope of capturing the Senate. In neighboring New Jersey, Republicans thought they had a lock on the seat of retiring Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat. But when Gov. Christine Todd Whitman decided against running, the race became a free-for-all. Rep. Bob Franks won the Republican nod. He's a social moderate, but hardly in the same mold as Ms. Whitman, who is probably the most aggressively pro-abortion major Republican officeholder in the country. The Democrats, meanwhile, tapped Jon Corzine, a political neophyte who has never held elective office. But what he lacks on his resumé, Mr. Corzine more than makes up for in his bank account. The former CEO of investment bank Goldman Sachs spent $35 million of his own money to defeat former Gov. Jim Florio in the Democratic primary. In Florida, meanwhile, Rep. Bill McCollum seems to be paying a political price for his role as one of the House impeachment managers against President Clinton. Earlier in the summer he trailed his opponent, state insurance commissioner Bill Nelson, by as much as 11 percentage points, though the race is now too close to call. Mr. McCollum, a staunch conservative, had to spend heavily to fend off a nomination challenge by moderate Rep. Tom Gallagher, leaving him at a financial disadvantage in a state with several expensive media markets. A third-party run by state Rep. Willie Logan, a disgruntled former Democrat with support in the black community, may be enough to help Republicans hold this seat being vacated by Connie Mack. However these races pan out, the Senate will continue to be more ideologically moderate than the House of Representatives. Many candidates from both parties are touting higher spending on public education, greater Medicare benefits, and other "soccer mom" issues that traditionally skew Democratic. Social issues, on the other hand, are almost never mentioned. It's not just the Republicans who are moving to the center in their race for control of the Senate. Democrats, too, have nominated moderately conservative candidates in states like Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Across the country, Democratic Senate hopefuls talk of individual responsibility and fiscal restraint-ideas that were once practically copyrighted by the GOP. In Delaware, for instance, political signs dotting the landscape seem to equal the number of voters-and none of them mentions party affiliation. Nor does it help much to talk to the candidates themselves. One Senate hopeful boasted to WORLD that he had balanced the state budget eight years in a row, cut taxes in seven of those years, eliminated the marriage penalty and the inheritance tax, and cut welfare rolls by half. That's a platform that echoes the Republicans' 1994 Contract with America, but the man touting his conservative credentials was Tom Carper, Delaware's Democratic governor. "I tell people with the economy this strong, even I look like I know what I'm doing," he joked during a recent visit to the Greenwood Senior Center. He certainly seems to know what he's doing in the Senate race: Polls show him in a statistical tie with William Roth, one of the Senate's most senior members and the chairman of the powerful finance committee. The 79-year-old incumbent has been a lackluster campaigner, while the 53-year-old governor seems intent on shaking every hand in the state. In Greenwood, for instance, Mr. Carper started his day with a 6:30 visit to a pickle factory, followed by stops at grocery stores and gas stations all along Highway 13 en route to the senior center. It's that kind of hard work-multiplied by the 34 states holding elections this year-that will determine which party controls the Senate. Democratic bows to conservative principles make it more important for Republicans not to hedge on distinctive issues. With both the White House and the House of Representatives looking iffy at best, Republicans want desperately to hold on to the upper chamber. "It's not just important for the Republicans," insisted Gov. Allen of Virginia. "It's important for the taxpayers, for families and working people and enterprises across the country." Funny, the Democrats say the same thing.

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