Posted on April 11, 1994 in Washington Watch

Looming large on this year’s political horizon are this November’s 34 Senate races. Not since the 1980 elections have there been as many hotly contested seats. Political analysts now feel that at least 16 of the 34 Senate seats that will be contested this November will be very close – and 10 of them are currently held by Democrats.

Since the present lineup in the Senate is 56 Democrats to 44 Republicans, and since at least 2 of the Democrats are conservatives who normally vote with the Republicans, a net change of only 4 or 5 seats being contested this year could bring control of the Senate to the Republican Party. This, of course, could in turn restore “gridlock” to government and make a nightmare of President Clinton’s next two years in office.

Generally, the party of the President can expect some losses in the mid-term election. In the past 10 midterm elections, the President’s Party has lost on average 3 seats in the Senate and 23 in the House of Representatives. And as I mentioned in a previous article, there are other factors, such as Republican redistricting plans which put the Democrats at a disadvantage, that suggest the Democrats will fare worse than usual.

The state of the economy, the ability of the President to project his national agenda and the status of the Whitewater controversy (or whatever other controversy may be raging in November) will all also have an effect in defining how well Democrats will do in the November elections.

In addition to these macro-level concerns that will help shape voter attitudes toward Republicans and Democrats in November, there is another powerful issue that has dominated U.S. politics over the past few years: “anti-incumbency.” It was only a few years ago that political analysts were complaining about the “permanent campaign.” It appeared then that being an incumbent gave a person a clear advantage toward winning reelection. And, to be sure, for a number of elections well over 90% of those who ran for reelection won.

That is no longer the case. Public anger with corruption, the remoteness of government officials and the belief that politicians are more concerned with themselves than with those who elected them, have combined to produce a deep backlash against incumbents.

One sure sign of this anti-incumbent sentiment is that at least 11 states have passed term limits laws, which limit the number of years those states’ Congressmen and Senators can serve. And all indicators are that the anti-incumbent sentiment which produced 12 new members of the Senate and 121 new Congressmen in the 1992 elections is still a potent force in 1994.

This anti-incumbent pressure and the negative atmosphere it has created have led a number of members of Congress and the Senate to retire now rather than face the possibility of losing their reelection bids. This year, for example, 8 Senators have announced their retirements (5 Democrats and 3 Republicans) – and all the races to fill these open seats are considered toss-ups.

But it is important to remember that these larger national issue all play themselves out in the context of each individual election. And so, to understand what will happen in November it is important to look at each race in its own right. Some of these elections deserve a full treatment.

I will, for example, give a detailed look at the fascinating Virginia Senate race in a future article. In that election, the incumbent, Democrat Chuck Robb, who is plagued by sex and drug scandals (none of which have been confirmed), is being challenged on the Republican side by the James Miller who was Director of the Office of Management and Budget under former President Reagan, and Irangate “mastermind” Oliver North.

In this article I will profile a few of this November’s races to give some ideas on some of the issues and the types of campaigns we can expect to see this fall. First, there are 2 Senators, one Democrat and one Republican, who were expected to face close elections but who now appear to face little difficulty in winning reelection in November.

Massachusetts

After a number of scandals that severely tarnished the image of Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, the magic that seems to insure “Kennedy” victories in Massachusetts elections seemed to be over. Just one year ago, Kennedy, who has been in the Senate for 32 years, appeared to present Republicans with an easy target. At that time his ratings had slipped to a low 41% favorable and a high 40% unfavorable.

But Republicans have not been able to find a big-name challenger to capitalize on the Senator’s weakness, and by now it seems too late for them to take the seat even if they do manage to come up with a strong candidate. Kennedy has apparently been rehabilitated in the public eye, and his reelection now is virtually assured. His ratings are now 62% favorable and only 26% unfavorable and the polls show him able to beat most of his lesser-known opponents by a 2 to 1 margin.

Rhode Island

Republican Senator John Chafee has often been seen as a potential target by Democrats. Rhode Island is a largely Democratic state and Chafee, an 18 year veteran of the senate, has had tough reelection races in the past. In 1982 he won by only 2% of the vote, and in 1988 he had to fight another very close race against a very well-funded opponent. That year, pro-Israel PACs attempted to take advantage of Chafee’s apparent vulnerability and his pro-Arab voting record by raising millions for his challengers.

But Chafee won that race in 1988 by a 55%-45% margin, and seems to be headed for an even easier victory this year.

***

Maine

Political analysts didn’t expect much of anything interesting to happen in Maine this year. But Democratic Senator George Mitchell’s retirement announcement has thrown the state’s politics into a turmoil. Mitchell was expected to easily win reelection. His decision not to seek reelection brought Maine’s only two members of Congress, Republican Olympia Snowe and Democrat Tom Andrews into the race to replace him.

While the race was a sure win for Democrats if Mitchell had stayed in, his departure gives Republicans a chance to win in a state where more than half of federally-elected office holders are Republicans.

And since Maine’s Republican Governor, John McKernan (who is Olympia Snowe’s husband), is also not running for reelection this year, all 4 top posts in the state will be contested this year and no incumbents will be involved. Already, 30 Democrats and Republicans have announced their candidacies to replace Snowe and Andrews.

What could further complicate this mess is if Mitchell is appointed by President Clinton to the fill the recently announced vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Should this occur, Mitchell would have to resign from the Senate before his term ends in January of 1995. By law, Maine’s Governor could announce a replacement for Mitchell who would serve until next January. Since there is little doubt that McKernan would appoint his wife, Representative Snowe, to the seat – she would then have the advantage of serving a few months in office before the November election, which would allow her to gain experience and greater state-wide recognition.

***

California

The issue of money in politics is certain to surface in this year’s Senate race. Traditionally, California races are the most expensive in the nation, sometimes costing more than $20 million in Senate elections. The state is so large and populous, and campaigns cost so much that candidates do very little personal campaigning for election. They are forced to spend a great deal of time going to fundraising events and sitting on the phone with potential contributors.

Since campaign finance laws prohibit individuals from giving more than $1,000 to a candidate, raising $10,000,000 can be an extremely difficult affair. The one loop-hole in the campaign finance law is that there is no limit to the amount of personal funds an candidate may spend on their own behalf. As a result, the Senate races in California are attracting more and more millionaires who can more easily raise and spend the money it takes to win elections.

Republican Congressman Michael Huffington is an example of the millionaire turned politician. In 1992 he set a record by spending $5,000,000 of his own money to win his first Congressional election, and he may set a record in this year’s Senate race as well. He is not expected to win against the Democratic incumbent Dianne Feinstein, but he has committed to spend at least $15,000,000 of his own money to compete against her.

Although still early in the year, Huffington has already spent $1,000,000 on television ads to introduce himself to voters across the state. So far, however, the results are not promising. 76% of the state’s voters still say they “don’t know enough about Huffington.” And early polls show that Feinstein can beat Huffington by more than 2 to 1.

Pennsylvania

In many ways, Democratic Senator Harris Wofford’s victory in the 1991 special election to replace Republican John Heinz (who had died in a plane crash) set the stage for a Democrat to win the White House in 1992. Wofford beat a former Bush Administration Cabinet member who had also served two terms as the state’s governor. Wofford basically ignored his opponent on the ballot and ran against Bush’s economic policy and in favor of a national health care program.

Wofford’s campaign managers were the same team who later ran Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign. At the time of the 1992 elections Wofford was a significant national figure and was considered a certain victor when he would run for reelection 1994. Today, however, largely as a result of a very lackluster 2 years in office, Wofford has only a 23% approval rating and only 35% of the state’s voters say he deserves reelection.

As a result of Wofford’s inability to make a strong positive impact on his state’s voters, this is a seat the Republicans could win from the Democrats – but only if they nominate a strong challenger to face the incumbent in the fall.

Maryland

Another seat the Republicans stand a chance of winning from a sitting Democrat is in Maryland, where Democratic senator Paul Sarbanes has done little to convince voters to reelect him for another six year term. Only 34% of Maryland’s voters say that Sarbanes deserves reelection. Yet, because the Republicans have a long history of fielding weak challengers in Maryland, even weak Democratic incumbents in this state stood a good chance of winning reelection.

But all that may change this year. Former Tennessee Republican Senator Bill Brock, who moved to Maryland over a decade ago (when he served in President Reagan’s Cabinet), has announced his candidacy for the 1994 election against Sarbanes. Suddenly, a race that was seen as one of the most bring in the country is beginning to attract interest. If Brock can overcome some slight voter resentment over the fact that he is not a native Marylander, he may be a strong enough challenger to unseat Sarbanes. If he can, Brock will be the first person to win election to the Senate from two different states.

Another interesting side light to this campaign will be whether or not Vice President Al Gore comes to Maryland to campaign for Sarbanes. It will be remembered that when Brock first won his Tennessee Senate seat in 1970, he defeated Al Gore, Senior (the vice President’s father) in that year’s race.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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