Cover Story

Rebuilding the House?

Early on Nov. 8, long after one presidential candidate has gone to bed a winner, Dennis Hastert and Richard Gephardt may still be wondering which of them will wield the Speaker's gavel. In one of the tightest races for control of the House, Republicans hold a bare 11-seat majority. If the Democrats can take over just six current Republican seats, they'll wrest control of the lower chamber-and with it, much of the nation's legislative agenda. Though all 435 seats are up for grabs, only 50 or so are considered truly competitive. Republicans are largely resigned to losing seats in the West, where demographic shifts have left them at a disadvantage. But with GOP candidates showing surprising strength in the East, can they pick up enough seats to offset their Western losses? Bob Jones visited four of the hardest-fought congressional districts for a sample of what Election Night might hold. Here's a region-by-region look at 14 key races around the country.

Issue: "The 2000 vote," Nov. 4, 2000

It's hard to find a good time to shake hands at a high-school football game in northern New Jersey, where parents and fans approach the sport with near-religious fervor. Mike Ferguson waits until halftime to bound up the metal bleachers, his hand extended. "I didn't want to interrupt the game," he tells a group of women at the far end, "but I'm Mike Ferguson and I'm running for Congress." "We're not here for the game," one of the women replies. "We're here for the girls." She nods toward the field, where her daughter is competing for homecoming queen. Mr. Ferguson slides away, allowing her to enjoy the moment. Homecoming day at a public high school in an overwhelmingly Democratic county-nothing is off-limits to the energetic young Republican in one of the nation's closest congressional races. When Rep. Bob Franks, a Republican, resigned his 7th district seat to run for the U.S. Senate, Democrats were gleeful. Without an incumbent, they saw the race as one of their best chances to pick up a seat on the East Coast. But Mr. Ferguson, a 30-year-old political neophyte, has delighted national Republicans with his unexpectedly strong campaign. The wholesome, soft-spoken schoolteacher comes across as reasonable and nonthreatening-important traits in a district where a majority of voters are registered independents. "What are you?" one woman asks him, clearly meaning his political party. "I'm a teacher," he replies innocently, "and I'd appreciate your vote." The low-key approach appears to be working. Polls show the race a dead heat, and voters seem to be making up their minds based on personality as much as on any policy issues. That clearly frustrates Democratic nominee Maryanne Connelly, a former small-town mayor and AT&T executive, who is trying to portray Mr. Ferguson as too conservative for the district. She warns voters that the Republican is openly "anti-choice," secretly pro-gun, and possibly racist. Ironically enough, all that name-calling may backfire for the Democrats. One local newspaper called Ms. Connelly the "sleaziest" candidate in New Jersey, and some polls show Mr. Ferguson leading among women, who view the Democrat as too aggressive. Republicans, in any case, won't let Ms. Connelly's charges go unchallenged. They're pouring money into the race, already one of the country's 10 most expensive. "They know that the Democrats can't take back the House unless they win this seat," Mr. Ferguson explains. "They know that if they help us maintain this seat in the Republican column, that we'll maintain control of the House. It's just that simple." Other races to watch in the Northeast:

  • New Jersey 12 (Democratic incumbent). You might want to diagram this one: Dick Zimmer, a moderate Republican, abandoned this seat in 1996 to run for the Senate against Robert Torricelli. (He lost.) Republican Ike Pappas took over for two years, but then lost by one percentage point to Democrat Rush Holt in the biggest upset of 1998. This year, the moderate Mr. Zimmer and the conservative Mr. Pappas waged a bitter primary battle for the nomination, with Mr. Zimmer coming out on top. He now leads the Democratic incumbent in the polls, though Mr. Holt has about $700,000 more cash on hand going into the campaign's final days.
  • Pennsylvania 13 (Democratic incumbent). This is one seat where incumbency might just be a disadvantage. Voters to the north and west of Philadelphia have elected four different representatives in the last five elections. This time, it's Rep. Joe Hoeffel's turn to try to overcome the incumbency liability. He's facing Stewart Greenleaf, a moderate state senator who defeated a more conservative Republican in a hard-fought primary. Though Mr. Hoeffel had almost twice as much cash on hand at the end of September, both parties admit the race is too close to call.
  • New York 1 (Democratic incumbent/open). Republicans think they have this one in the bank. When Rep. Michael Forbes jumped to the Democratic Party last year, outraged Republicans made him their No. 1 target for defeat this year. To their delight, voters cooperated: In the Democratic primary, a little-known retired librarian named Regina Seltzer beat the turncoat incumbent by 35 votes. The primary upset makes the Republican nominee, fireworks magnate Felix Grucci, the clear favorite to re-take this moderate Long Island district.

There's nothing Mickey Mouse about the House race in Orlando, Fla. After 20 years in Congress, Republican Bill McCollum decided to run for the Senate, creating a power vacuum in this traditionally Republican district. Bill Sublette, a moderate state senator, stepped in and became the favorite to win the GOP nomination. Then Ric Keller, a conservative, 36-year-old attorney finally convinced a majority of primary voters to vote for him-but it took two primary elections and nearly $600,000 in hard-earned cash. After finally defeating Mr. Sublette by 4 percentage points on Oct. 3, Mr. Keller found himself with only five weeks to unify his party and replenish his war chest for the fight against Democrat Linda Chapin. She has served two terms as Orange County chairman (in effect the mayor), raised $1.2 million, and avoided the kind of bruising primary that so divided the GOP. From his office overlooking the downtown Orlando skyline, Mr. Keller ticked off the votes he is highlighting in his race against Ms. Chapin: She supported a $2.2 billion sales tax increase, a 10 percent tax on electric bills, and an unpopular, $600 million light-rail system. Besides, he said, she's radically pro-abortion, as evidenced by her $140,000 donation from Emily's List, a pro-abortion PAC. But abortion is a tricky issue in the soccer mom haven of central Florida, and Mr. Keller admitted that his pro-life stance may have cost him some support among his base in the business community. With his opponent positioning herself as a pro-business moderate, Mr. Keller has the tough assignment of winning over Sublette Republicans, undecided independents, and pro-abortion business types. If anything keeps this seat in Republican hands, it may be sheer demographics: The GOP enjoys an 8-point edge in voter registration, and Mr. McCollum carried the district with some 65 percent of the vote in his last two reelection bids. But one other advantage Mr. Keller was hoping for hasn't materialized: coattails. George W. Bush is struggling statewide, and no one is predicting any boost for Republicans further down the ticket. Other races to watch in the Southeast:

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