Posted on September 28, 1998 in Washington Watch

As they are occurring under the cloud of the continuing preoccupation with the President’ scandal, this November’s congressional elections will be both unique and unpredictable.

At present, Republicans hold a 228-207 edge (including one Independent who votes with the Democrats) in the 435-member body.

In a normal election year about one-fourth of the contested seats, over 100, are typically close races. This year, however, less than 60 races are considered competitive. Thus, even under the best of circumstances, it would have been difficult for any major shift to take place.

Nevertheless, just two months ago Democrats were optimistic of their chances of regaining control of the Congress. They had recruited a good field of challengers and erased much of their 1996 debt leaving the party with enough money to run their November campaign. Despite the fact that each of the 435 congressional seats are contested individually in separate districts across the United States, Democrats had worked to develop a number of national themes (protection of social security, health care reform, campaign finance reform, anti-tobacco legislation) they felt would give their candidates a competitive edge against the Republicans.

Republicans behaved as the Democrats hoped they would and either defeated or refused to consider all of these measures, providing Democrats with their issue base for the campaign. Further boosting the Democratic hopes that they could win the seats they needed to regain control of the Congress were national polls that showed that voters were favoring them over Republicans. Armed with these advantages Democrats set out confidently for November.

But with the elections now only one month away, Democrats are facing the difficulty of getting their issues heard because both national and local media are focusing such exhaustive attention on the Lewinsky affair. Republicans are aware of this situation and are, therefore, determined to prolong the crisis at least until after November.

The battle lines for November are thus drawn. Republicans are seeking to nationalize the President’s problems and focus the election on issues like “character” and “morality,” while Democrats are still struggling to be heard. This has caused some Democrats to express public anger not only at the Republicans, but also at the President himself–whom they have accused of hurting the party’s chances in November.

Most analysts predict that the 1998 elections will feature the lowest voter turnout in decades. This is also a factor in both parties’ political strategies. Since 1974, the non-presidential year voter turnout has been less than 40 percent. This year the numbers may be as low as 33 percent. There are two reasons for this. On the one hand voters are somewhat complacent. The economy is good, crime is low and the national mood is at a three decade high. Complacent voters don’t vote.

At the same time, other voters are so disillusioned and disgusted by the political mess in Washington that they have “tuned out” of politics. As a result, both parties have directed their attention at activating their hard-core support groups hoping to entice them to the polls in November. Republicans are not anticipating winning Democratic voters to their side, nor do Democrats hope to convert Republican voters. Republicans are, therefore, directing their message to the Christian fundamentalists, the ideological right wing and the business community. Democrats, on the other hand, are focused on African-Americans, labor unions, women’s organizations and senior citizens.

This again explains why the political climate has become so partisan and why Republicans are so determined to drag the President’s scandal out as long as they possibly can. Their intent is not only to drown out the Democratic message, but also to outrage and activate their conservative Republican base. Some Republican candidates are also using the President’s scandal as part of their campaign arsenal. Some are using ads attacking the President’s character and linking their Democratic opponents to the President. Some Democrats, especially those in close races have felt the pinch of this line of attacks. With the media hounding them to state their positions on the President’s scandal they had distanced themselves from Clinton and indicated that they would not want him to come to their districts to campaign for them.

Since they are unable to break through the media blackout on issues–Democrats have resorted to old-fashioned direct voter contact to reach their key constituencies. Democrats are urging them to turn out and vote for the issues that effect them in order to regain control of the Congress.

In the past week there are signs that there may be some danger to Republicans in pursuing their anti-Clinton strategy. Democrats, who initially felt shame and anger at the President’s behavior, are now increasingly fed up with the Republicans for continuing to prolong this crisis. And Republicans, in some areas, have become defensive about their party’s tactics. The embarrassing and sordid details of the Starr report, the released video tapes and other evidence against the President are now causing a bit of a public backlash.

As a result, public opinion polls are once again showing that the President’s approval ratings are going up and congressional approval ratings are going down. And most importantly, for the first time in over a month, the public’s approval of Democrats is once again higher than the Republican’s rating.

Despite this shift, and despite the fact that there is only one month until the elections, it is still too early to predict any outcome for these most unusual elections. As I have noted, at this point the results of almost 370 of the 435 races are virtually decided with the incumbent Democrats and Republicans certain of victory. The real election will be for a hotly contested handful of seats.

Between now and November anything can happen. Republicans can over-play their hand, the President and Democrats can be hurt by new disclosures, local or national media can decide to focus on issues and create a debate on the direction of the country, or any number of things can happen on the local level to influence the outcome of a number of individual races.

The final direction of this election will not be clear until the weekend before November 3rd and the outcome will remain unpredictable until election day.

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