Cover Story

An uneasy majority

By the way: Elections for Congress and governor, along with votes on key referenda, are also worth noticing

Issue: "President Bush?," Nov. 18, 2000

Editors relegated the news to inside stories amid the drama of the presidential contest, but the congressional elections will loom large in the political future of the next president. Republicans just barely managed to retain control of both houses of Congress. The likely Bush administration will be part of the first GOP trifecta since 1953-54, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House.

In both chambers, Republicans lost seats. The Senate was the bigger surprise, with a cliffhanger in Washington set to determine whether the GOP will enjoy a 51-49 majority or exact parity. Even at 50-50, however, Republicans will control the legislative machinery, thanks to the tie-breaking vote cast by Dick Cheney, the presumptive vice president whose duties will include presiding over the Senate. (If Joe Lieberman were to become vice president he would have to resign his Senate seat and the Republican governor of Connecticut would appoint a Republican successor, thus maintaining GOP control of the Senate.)

Democrats fared well in every part of the country, holding onto open seats in New York, New Jersey, and Nebraska, while picking off Florida's open Republican seat. Hillary Clinton's unexpectedly large margin in New York immediately makes her the Democratic star of the upper chamber. But George Allen's upset win over 12-year Democratic veteran Chuck Robb in Virginia makes the former Virginia governor a Republican star.

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Republicans picked off just one Democratic open seat-John Ensign won in Nevada-while watching a handful of their own powerful incumbents go down to defeat. In Delaware, six-term veteran Bill Roth lost to Tom Carper, the state's popular (and much younger) governor. In Michigan, Rep. Debbie Stabenow narrowly edged out Spencer Abraham, a first-term conservative. Even more conservative was first-termer John Ashcroft of Missouri, who lost to the memory of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan. (Mr. Carnahan's widow, Jean, will go to Washington in his place; Republicans do not plan to contest this unprecedented outcome.)

Sen. Rod Grams of Minnesota, another reliably conservative vote despite his uneven personal life, lost to millionaire department store heir Mark Dayton. In Washington, a recount was underway in the tight race between millionaire software executive Maria Cantwell and incumbent Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, who had a 3,000-vote lead at the close of balloting.

Even with the GOP nominally in control, however, the Senate won't be the same. Gone are three conservative members of the Class of '94 who might otherwise have ascended the leadership ladder to push their agendas more forcefully. In Rhode Island, Republican Lincoln Chafee (appointed to fill the seat held by his late father, John Chafee) gained election to a full six-year term, but he is politically liberal. The Democrats, meanwhile, gain three outspoken liberals in Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Stabenow, and Jon Corzine of New Jersey; look for them to push the minority party further to the left, potentially increasing the gridlock on Capitol Hill.

Speaking of gridlock, the already fractious House will be even more closely divided for the next two years, thanks to a net Democratic pickup of at least two seats. With two seats (in Florida and New Jersey) still undecided pending recounts, the expected breakdown is 220 Republicans, 211 Democrats, and two independents. That's the most closely divided Congress since 1953, when Republicans controlled the House 219-215.

Still, it could have been worse for the GOP. In California alone, four closely watched Republican districts changed hands; most notably, James Rogan, one of the House impeachment managers against President Clinton, lost his seat. Additional losses in Utah and Washington would have been enough to christen a new Speaker of the House, but Republicans managed enough Eastern upsets to offset the Western debacle.

At the top of the Democratic casualty list was Connecticut's Sam Gejdenson, a 20-year incumbent from Connecticut who fell to state Rep. Rob Simmons. Republicans also did well in open Democratic seats throughout the East and Midwest, with pickups in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Michigan. In the latter race, state Sen. Mike Rogers defeated state Rep. Dianne Byrum by just 500 votes.

The House races were noteworthy mostly for the overwhelming reelection rate among incumbents. With all 435 seats up for election, only a half dozen incumbents were turned out of office, a sure sign that voters are generally pleased with the direction of the country-a fact that makes George W. Bush's success against the incumbent administration all the more remarkable.

Despite their marginal setbacks, House Republicans believe they are in a good position going forward. They defended twice as many open seats as the Democrats this year, but the situation could well be reversed in 2002. Many long-serving Democrats, dispirited after six years in the minority, sought reelection only at the prodding of Rep. Dick Gephardt, who orchestrated an all-out push to re-take the lower chamber. The failure of that effort will almost certainly lead to a wave of retirements two years from now, offering Republicans a chance to build on their slim majority.


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