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latimes.com: Control of next House -- a race too close to call

latimes.com WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times) -- As the year's congressional session slowly winds down, House members will be leaving Washington in a rare state of uncertainty: No one knows for sure who will run the show when they come back after the Nov. 7 election.

Democrats and Republicans are locked in the closest contest for control of the House of Representatives in 50 years. And the outcome appears to hinge on factors with little in common but their unpredictability. Issues as parochial as irregularities in a House Republican's financial dealings or a Democratic candidate's ties to a controversial pharmaceutical company could determine some races. Others may be shaped by trends in the breathtakingly tight presidential race.

Party operatives on both sides, not surprisingly, voice optimism that their side will prevail. But nonpartisan analysts estimate the new House could be controlled by as little as a one- or two-vote margin--and they are unsure which way the scale will tip. Nail biting is the order of the day.

"Our leadership is optimistic and upbeat but the truth is, nobody really knows," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.).

Against that backdrop, the budget impasse that has kept Congress from ending this year's session continued Sunday. Congress passed another one-day extension of stopgap funding to keep the government running while negotiators tried to narrow their many remaining differences with the White House on issues of education, immigration and tax policy. But Republicans said they were prepared to fight with President Clinton until the eve of the election--"if that's what it takes," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said on ABC-TV's "This Week."

In one sign of progress, congressional and White House negotiators early this morning said they were near agreement on a $112-billion spending bill for education and other social programs. They were still working out final details on the compromise--which would provide money Clinton has sought for new school construction and hiring more teachers.

One reason things are moving so slowly is because both sides are cautiously assessing the impact of each legislative maneuver on the battle for control of the House.

That battle is being fought primarily in a handful of districts around the country where House members are retiring or pursuing higher office, leaving open seats that traditionally produce the most competitive elections. That battleground is heavily tilted in the Democrats' favor because far more Republican seats have opened up than Democratic ones. The issues dominating the campaign--education, health, Social Security--also play to Democrats' strength. And Democrats have marshaled a campaign war chest that has erased the GOP's traditional financial advantage.

Still, Republicans have held their own. In recent weeks, the GOP has managed to improve its position in a number of key races--in Florida, Missouri and Montana to name a few--to the point that some analysts say it's less likely than it was a few months ago that Republicans will be dumped from power.

"Democrats' mood ought to reflect growing concern about their ability" to win control, said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan analyst of congressional elections. He predicts Democrats will gain some seats--but he is unsure whether it will be enough to overcome the GOP's current seven-seat majority.

"We feel optimistic we can take it back, but it's going to be closer than we had hoped," acknowledged Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It's obviously frustrating."

The stakes are particularly high for Democrats because if they do not win this year, many analysts say, their chances of winning the House in 2002 will be diminished. By then, district lines will have been redrawn--in many states by legislatures run by Republicans. And there may be a rash of retirements among House Democrats--including many who had been persuaded to postpone retirement plans for the sake of the 2000 fight.

"We don't have a better scenario than we do now, and we won't in 2002," Kennedy said.

While the stakes in the House elections are high, the battleground is small because very few incumbents are facing a real fight. Four of them happen to be in California: GOP Reps. James E. Rogan of Glendale, Steven T. Kuykendall of Rancho Palos Verdes and Brian P. Bilbray of San Diego face stiff challenges from Democrats; Rep. Calvin M. Dooley (D-Visalia) is a top Republican target. But most incumbents in California and elsewhere are coasting to victory.

The cloud of uncertainty about which party will win the House is unusual in a town where political professionals typically know who will control both chambers of Congress before the first vote is cast. For 40 years, the Democrats controlled the House, often by such commanding majorities that a Republican majority was unthinkable.

Now, the race is so close that many lawmakers and analysts predict much of the nation will go to bed election night not knowing which party will win the House. And they may wake up the next morning and still not know. Here's why:

Right now, Republicans functionally control 224 seats in the House, including one held by a Virginia independent who usually votes with the GOP and a vacant one previously held by a Virginia Republican who died but whose district is expected to remain in the party's hands. Democrats control 211 seats, including one occupied by an independent from Vermont who usually votes with Democrats and one previously held by a Minnesota Democrat that the party is expected to retain.

That means Democrats need a net gain of seven seats to eke out a majority. They already have, in effect, picked up one because no Republican is running for the seat now held by Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (R-Monterey Park), who was defeated in the Democratic primary by state Sen. Hilda Solis before he switched to the GOP.

Complicating the outlook, however, is a maverick Democrat--Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio)--who has said he will vote for GOP Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) for House speaker when the next Congress convenes in January. That means the Democrats may need to pick up eight seats to be sure of electing one of their own as speaker without Traficant.

With the fight for the House so close, political operatives are looking anxiously at the effect on it of the presidential race. The balance could be tipped if the neck-and-neck contest between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush breaks one way or the other.

If that doesn't happen, political pros tend to dismiss the significance of coattails in most House races. Still, some Democrats are unnerved by signs that Republicans are more energized about the presidential race--and therefore more likely to vote--than Democrats.

"You don't have to be the sharpest knife in the drawer to figure out that an election this close is going to be driven by turnout," said Peter Fenn, a Democratic political consultant. "What bothers me is the $20 million that [religious conservatives] have committed to registering and getting out their vote. This is massive and could present serious problems for Democrats."

Conversely, Ralph Nader's Green Party presidential candidacy--which Gore worries could cost him precious votes in several key states--could help Democrats in the House battle. That's because most Nader voters--likely to include some who otherwise would not show up at the polls--are expected to support Democrats in races farther down the ballot.

The pivotal open House seats are scattered throughout the nation, so there is no clear regional character to the election. But the disparity between GOP- and Democratic-held open seats is marked: 26 of these districts are now represented by Republicans, only nine by Democrats.

The open seat in Montana, where GOP Rep. Rick Hill is retiring, provides a snapshot of some of the forces that are working for--and against--Democrats nationally. This is one of several races in traditionally Republican territory where Democrats have been doing far better than anyone expected. In this contest--as in the most of the others--Democrats scored a bull's-eye in candidate recruitment, fielding a popular official who has already run statewide, Supt. of Public Instruction Nancy Keenan. She is running against former Lt. Gov. Dennis Rehberg, a Republican trying to portray Keenan as too liberal for the state. But for the most part, she has been steadily ahead in the polls.

Keenan's daunting challenge has been to maintain her lead in a very Republican state. Bush is heavily favored to win in Montana, and the Gore campaign is putting almost no effort into the state. Recent polls indicate Rehberg is closing fast.

In Florida, analysts say Gore's selection of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate--the first Jew ever nominated--could help Elaine Bloom, a state legislator mounting a surprisingly stiff challenge to GOP Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. The Lieberman factor is expected to boost Democratic turnout in the heavily Jewish district. But Bloom has been thrown on the defensive by an ad linking her to a prescription drug company accused of price fixing, an example of the type of local brouhaha that can overshadow national trends.

A comparable situation in North Carolina has imperiled Republican Rep. Charles H. Taylor. Once expected to coast to reelection, Taylor has been battered by questions about his personal financial dealings, including delinquent property taxes. Sam Neill, his Democratic foe, could ride the controversy to an upset.

If Democrats are able to make even small gains in other parts of the country, California could prove the state that gives them a House majority. Aside from hoping to replace Rogan, Kuykendall and Bilbray, Democrats want to claim the open seat that Rep. Tom Campbell (R-San Jose) gave up to run for the Senate. If that happens and Dooley wins reelection, the Democrats have netted four seats in California.

"California is going to be quite good for the Democrats," says analyst Rothenberg. "But the rest of the country is a draw."


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Monday, October 30, 2000

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