California and National Elections

Republicans Stun Democrats

By Z. Byron Wolf
November 6, 2002 03:00 PM

BERKELEY -- Exploiting a whirlwind campaign tour by President Bush over the past week, Republicans surprised confident Democrats, retaking control of the Senate on Tuesday and making historic mid-term gains by not losing ground in the House, where they hold a slim majority. Updated Nov. 6, 3:00 pm

Republicans ousted Senate incumbents in Georgia and Missouri and defended against a strong Democratic challenge in Colorado. Results in South Dakota and Minnesota were not final, but Republicans led in those races as well.

Because Democrats currently hold the Senate by a single vote, a net gain of one seat was enough to propel Republicans into the majority. If current projections hold true, they could net as many as four seats.

The gains were less decisive in the House, but Republicans wrested several key seats from Democrats in Florida, Indiana and Iowa and could still build on their slight majority with several races still undecided. This is the first time in a hundred years that a Republican president has seen his party gain House seats in the mid-term elections.

Some experts attributed the key victories to President Bush and his chief political adviser Karl Rove, who put the war on terrorism and his standoff with Iraq on the back burner to campaign hard for Republican candidates in 15 states over the past week.

"Karl Rove is a smart guy," said Professor Bruce Cain, director of the Institute for Governmental Studies at University of California-Berkeley. "He sent the president into states where Bush had won, sometimes by big margins in the 2000 election, and basically had him say, 'help me finish my mission.'"

The Democrats sole triumph over a sitting Republican senator came in Arkansas, where Rep. Mark Pryor decisively defeated Sen. Tim Hutchinson. Originally elected as a social conservative, Hutchinson divorced his wife and married a much younger aide during his term in the Senate.

Although Republicans will now control both Houses of Congress, the election was not a widespread national referendum against Democrats, who still hold enough seats to filibuster. But Republican gains on Tuesday do provide President Bush with the tools to more easily pass legislation to his liking and leave a lasting imprint on the federal judiciary.

Democrats in the Senate have used their one-seat majority in the 107th Congress to stall more than 50 conservative judicial appointments. Republicans used a similar stalling tactic against President Clinton during the final years of his administration. But with a majority in the Senate, President Bush could appoint one-third of the federal judiciary if he is elected to a second term.

But a bare majority means less when senators move from confirming appointments to passing legislation, says Professor Morris Fiorina, a congressional scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institution

"People are reading far too much into election results," Fiorina said. "There is not nearly as much at stake as reporters and politicians would like to think. It doesn't matter whether its Tom Daschle or Trent Lott you see on TV every night; either way there aren't going to be enough votes to break a filibuster in the Senate."

The only bright spot for Democrats is their pickup of key governorships in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin. Democrats held slight leads in Arizona, Alabama. Races in Oklahoma, Hawaii and Oregon remain tied with most precincts reporting.

Democrats may not control more than half of the state executives in the country as they had hoped, but the margin will be closer to even than the six-state lead Republican governors held for the past year.

Trying to play up the victories, Democrat National Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe said on CNN that wins in gubernatorial races bode well for his party in the future.

"This shows that we can win in the North, South, East and West and should set us up very nicely for 2004," McAuliffe said.

Political strategists consider governorships in large states crucial to winning the 2004 presidential election. Candidates rely heavily on governors to raise money and mobilize state party support. Right now, Republicans govern 27 states and Democrats, 21.

Republicans, however, picked up governorships in tight races in traditionally Democrat-run states like Maryland and Massachusetts. They also took control in New Hampshire.

Less than 50 seats decided the election in the 435-member House because most states redrew their Congressional after the 2000 Census to protect incumbent candidates.

For months, strategists for the major parties have tried to paint this mid-term election as a referendum on either the war or the economy. Last year Rove said the GOP could ride the war on terror to control of the Senate. Judging from the surprising number of Republican victories, he may have been right.

Democrats counted on a string of corporate scandals and a drooping stock market to draw voters away from in-power Republican economic policies.

Before the election, polls indicated that neither party was able to make a national message gel with voters concerned about local issues.

But homeland security was a major issue in Georgia, where GOP Representative Saxby Chambliss defeated sitting Democrat Max Cleland. Chambliss came under fire for negative campaigning when he used TV commercials to accuse Cleland, a Vietnam vet who lost three limbs in combat, of not supporting the president on national security.

The apparent victory of Rep. John Thune in South Dakota is a major victory for the White House, which tried to turned the campaign there into a referendum on Democrat Senate Majority Leader Daschle. Both Bush and Daschle spent a lot of time stumping there, and it is estimated that political parties and special interests spent $80 on the campaign for each voter in the state. Thune led by a hair with more than 90 percent of precincts reporting.

Among the most devastating losses for Democrats is the defeat of Sen. Jean Carnahan in Missouri. Democrat Carnahan was appointed to the seat when her husband, Governor Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash just prior to Election Day in November 2000. Mel Carnahan won the contest posthumously against then-Senator John Ashcroft. Jean Carnahan lost Tuesday to GOP Rep. Jim Talent.

Missouri's predicament in 2000 is mirrored this year by the unexpected death in a plane crash of Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, who perished in Minnesota with his wife and daughter less than two weeks ago. Former Vice President and Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale took up the flag for Democrats, who put his name on the ballot in Wellstone's stead. Wellstone had been locked in a tight race with former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, who led by four percentage points with a majority of precincts reporting.

Democrats might not even keep control of the Senate in a lame duck session. Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura's appointment of Independence Party comrade and former campaign manager Dean Barkley to replace Wellstone could shift power back to the GOP if Congress returns this year. Barkley has not said which major party he would support.

Louisiana presents the final kink in determining the Senate majority. There, incumbent Democrat and Mary Landrieu won a plurality of the vote, but fell short of a 50 percent majority. She is now expected to win a runoff election in December.

Republicans victories in contested House races are historic -- only twice in the last century -- with President Clinton in 1998 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 has the president's party not lost seats in the mid-term elections. This will be the first mid-term gain by a Republican president. Democrats, who lost the House in 1994 after four decades of dominance, had hoped to net six seats to regain control. The 1994 "Republican Revolution," was also the only mid-term election in the past 100 years where control of the House shifted.

While Republicans did come away from the election with gains, a full 90 percent of the House races were decided long before Election Day. The lack of competition, say political scientists, is a function of the way congressional districts were redrawn after the 2000 Census.

"In the House, this election tells you more about redistricting than national mood or a referendum on the president," Bernstein said.

States redraw congressional lines every 10 years to account for population shifts. This time around, most states redistricted to protect incumbent lawmakers in both parties.

A few states, like Iowa and Arizona, put the highly political task of redrawing Congressional lines to a "nonpartisan commission," allowing neither major party a say in where district lines were drawn. In Iowa, which has only five districts, this resulted in competitive races for four of the five seats. California, by contrast, has 53 congressional seats, but only one was considered competitive.

Iowa is another state that attracted a wide field of political players during the campaign. President Bush visited the state six times since the 2000 election to tout his war record and tax cuts -- more visits than his three predecessors combined. For the Democrats, everyone from Al Gore to Daschle to Dick Gephardt -- all possible presidential hopefuls in 2004 --stumped on the economy for the congressional races, three of five went to Republicans, and also for Senator Tom Harkin, who won re-election.

Despite star power, Iowa Democratic Party spokesperson Mark Daley said the election hinged on local issues -- specifically, Medicare. Iowa ranks last in the country in Medicare reimbursement for prescription drugs and Democrats tried to maximize this issue statewide.

Besides the president's hectic campaign schedule, what may have made the difference for Republicans was more grassroots campaigning -- labor-intensive "knock and talk."

"We're finding that people respond a lot better when our canvassers knock on their door and talk to them and tell them why they need to vote," said Karen Hanretty, spokeswoman for the California Republican Party. Hanretty said the way both parties campaign has changed in the 18th District and around the country.

Throughout California and the nation, Democrats also tried to step up their "get out the vote" campaigns with Democrat-friendly labor unions. There is nothing new about canvassing a neighborhood or using organized labor, but both parties acknowledge that the focus of TV ads and mailers has been putting off voters for years.

But don't look for an end to TV ads any time soon.

"Its not a zero-sum game," Hanretty said. "In a state as big as California you have to use TV and mailing to get your name-recognition up and then canvass when you're neck and neck at the end of the campaign."