August 28, 2002


The partisan composition of the 108th Congress, to be elected in November, does not necessarily foretell the partisan identity of the next president, to be elected in 2004.

But if the Democrats retain control of the U.S. Senate, where they now have a 50-49-1 majority, and capture control of the U.S. House, where they are in a 210-223-1 minority, then it will be easy to foretell the next what the next two years will bring – namely: partisan gridlock, with the Democrats trying to pass their agenda, and President Bush vetoing it. If each party holds one chamber, then the current gridlock will continue.

However, if the Republicans surprise all observers, and retake the Senate, while retaining the House, then Bush will have an opportunity to enact his own program before the 2004 elections.

Historically, the party occupying the White House loses congressional seats in the first mid-term election. But big losses don’t always mean a party turnover in the next presidential election. The Republicans won both chambers in 1994, but Bill Clinton won in 1996, after becoming much more conservative in his rhetoric. The Republicans scored significant, but not massive gains in 1978, presaging Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980.

Usually big mid-term gains in the president’s second term portend a presidential turnover, as in 1958 and 1974 for the Democrats (who then won the presidency in 1960 and 1976), and in 1966 for the Republicans (who won the White House in 1968). But there are exceptions, for the Democrats in 1986, and for the Republicans in 1946.

Control of the Senate is the top priority of both parties. Economic conditions favor the Democrats, with unemployment at 5.9 percent, annual GNP growth at less than two percent, and the stock market still under 9,000; voters may not be worried about their jobs, and are still spending money on consumer goods and services, but they are worried about their savings. Conversely, with the 9/11/01 anniversary approaching, new terrorist attacks would again cause voters to rally behind Bush. With the election just shy of ten weeks away, here’s the outlook in key contests:

South Dakota: This is the home state of Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, and it would be a huge embarrassment if his colleague, first-term Senator Tim Johnson, were to lose. Johnson’s Republican foe is John Thune, the state’s congressman. If Johnson wins big, it will be a harbinger of a nationwide Democratic trend; if Thune wins, it means that the Republican base is energized and behind Bush, and that Daschle will be ousted as majority leader. Outlook: Johnson will win by less than 4,000 votes.

Texas: Bush has a possible embarrassment factor in his home state, where Democrat Ron Kirk, the black former mayor of Dallas, is running even with the Republican nominee, state attorney general John Cornyn, for the seat being vacated by Phil Gramm. Will Texas, which has a black population of 11.5 percent, really elect a black senator? The state’s population is also about 32 percent Hispanic. Will Hispanic voters, primarily of Mexican ancestry, back a black? A Mexican-American is running for governor, so Democrats hope Hispanics will vote straight Democratic. Outlook: Kirk is campaigning as a conservative Democrat, and will come very close. Cornyn, however, will win by 50,000 votes.

Tennessee: Lamar Alexander is back again, but will voter fatigue do him in?

Alexander, a Republican, was governor from 1979 to 1986, and ran for the presidential nomination in both 1996 and 2000. In the August primary, he barely beat a conservative, winning by a 53-44 percent margin. The Democrat is Bob Clement, a congressman and son of a 1950s governor. Alexander is still wearing his trademark plaid shirt, and looks much younger than his 62 years. Outlook: In a squeaker for the seat of retiring Republican Fred Thompson, Alexander wins by 30,000 votes.

Minnesota: This state revels in being counter-cyclical and unpredictable. It elected Jesse Ventura as governor in 1998, and usually votes the opposite of national trends. If that happens again, then it’s bad news for incumbent Democrat Paul Wellstone, the Senate’s premier liberal. Norm Coleman, the former Saint Paul mayor, is personable and popular, and, despite his anti-abortion position, is not easily isolated as an “extremist.” With Ventura retiring, turnout will be lower than it was in 1998. Wellstone is Minnesota’s equivalent of Jesse Helms: voters either love him or hate him. Outlook: Wellstone broke his two-term limit pledge, and there is some voter fatigue. Coleman will win by 40,000 votes.

Missouri: In the Show-Me state, this is a But-For election. “But for” the death in a plane crash in late 2000 of Democratic Governor Mel Carnahan, then-U.S. Senator John Ashcroft would not have lost his seat. But a wave of sympathy caused the deceased Carnahan to beat Republican Ashcroft by 48,960 votes, and also sunk Republican governor candidate Jim Talent, who lost by 21,445 votes. “But for” his defeat, Ashcroft would not have become U.S. Attorney General in the Bush Administration. “But for” her husband’s death, widow Jean Carnahan would not have been appointed to his seat. And now she’s seeking to win the remainder of her husband’s term, through 2006, and is opposed by Talent. Polls show her ahead. Outlook: Carnahan is favored, but it will be close.

New Jersey: Democratic incumbent Bob Torricelli is the kind of guy who likes to cut corners, ever watchful for opportunities to advance himself. So it was no great surprise that the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee, on July 30, released a finding which reprimanded Torricelli for violating gift rules and “creating the appearance of impropriety.” Torricelli promptly apologized, and went on the air with commercials portraying himself as a “fighter.” The Republican nominee, wealthy businessman Doug Forrester, now has a gigantic opportunity to elect himself. The state’s junior senator, Democrat Jon Corzine, spent $60 million of his personal fortune to win by 90,973 votes in 2000. Outlook: Forrester now has the so-called “silver bullet”; if he spends $20 million of his fortune, he’ll beat Torricelli.

Iowa: Is the farm economy tanking? That’s not obvious, as incumbent Democratic senator Tom Harkin is in a very close race against Republican Greg Ganske, a Des Moines physician and congressman. Harkin’s abrasive partisanship makes him a polarizing figure, but he is now chairman of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, giving him a powerful argument for retention. Outlook: Ganske is closing strong, but Harkin will win narrowly.

North Carolina: If it was Jesse Helms or Bob Dole, voter fatigue would be oppressive; but the Republican nominee for Helms’ seat is Elizabeth Dole, Bob’s 64-year old wife, who is a North Carolina native and an accomplished executive and politician in her own right. Outlook: Had Helms run for a sixth term, a Democrat would have beaten him, but Dole looks like an easy winner.

New Hampshire: If the mantle of “Bozo” can be applied to any senator running, incumbent Republican Bob Smith would nose out Torricelli. Smith quit the Republicans in 1999, announced that he was running for president, but then quit that race and rejoined his old party. He has little respect from and even less support among his state’s voters. In the September 10 primary, Smith is opposed by John  Sununu, a congressman and son of a former governor and White House chief-of-staff (under the Bush I Administration). The Democratic nominee is Jeanne Sheehan, the state’s governor, who is highly unpopular due to her advocacy of a state income tax. Outlook: Sununu should beat Smith and defeat Sheehan.

Arkansas: This was Hillary Clinton’s fallback race. Rumors were rife during 1998 and 1999 that the former First Lady (or even Bill himself) intended to return to their home state and oppose Republican incumbent Tim Hutchinson in 2002. But Hillary won the New York seat, and Bill had other pursuits. Hutchinson won his seat in 1996 by just 45,701 votes, and then proceeded to divorce his wife and marry a staff aide. That didn’t sell well back home. Hutchinson’s Democratic opponent is Mark Pryor, the state attorney general, and son of Hutchinson’s predecessor, Senator David Pryor. Outlook: Pryor will win.

Colorado: Being non-descript and non-controversial is not a recipe for political success. And first-term Republican Wayne Allard is a poster boy for that approach this year. Allard beat Democrat Tom Strickland by 72,725 votes in 1996, in a year when Dole was defeating Clinton by 20,696 votes in the state. But Allard has not solidified himself. Polls show Allard well under 50 percent, but leading Strickland, who is running again; that’s very inauspicious, since most undecideds tend to break against the incumbent. Outlook: In every election cycle, there is an unexpected upset. That will be of Allard by Strickland this year.

Louisiana: Incumbent Mary Landrieu won by only 5,788 votes in 1996, but her voting record has been somewhat conservative. She backed welfare reform, the balanced budget amendment, and a ban on partial birth abortions. But she has a problem. Louisiana abolished party primaries, and all candidates run in a “jungle primary” (on November 5), with a December 7 runoff if no candidate gets more than 50 percent. She has three credible Republican opponents, and polls show her hovering around 50 percent. Outlook: This could be the seat that determines Senate control. Expect Landrieu to come in around 49 percent, and then face a runoff. And expect huge amounts of money to flow into that race.

My prediction: Republicans will lose Senate seats in Colorado and Arkansas, and pick up seats in Minnesota and New Jersey. That keeps the Democrats’ 50-49-1 majority in place.