TOPICS > Politics

Senate Control Up for Grabs

October 15, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Control of the Senate does hang in the balance this election day. A shift of just three seats would end Republican control and a shift of four seats would give outright control to the Democrats. Currently there are 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats in the Senate. Thirty-four of those one hundred seats are up for election in November, and fourteen are so-called “open” seats, where the incumbents are not seeking reelection. We get two perspectives now on these Senate campaigns. Norman Ornstein is a veteran Congress watcher at the American Enterprise Institute, and Bob Benenson is a political news editor at “Congressional Quarterly.” Welcome both of you. Norm, how typical, if at all, is this Senate race in Colorado that we just saw of the Senate–of the dynamic in Senate races throughout the country?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: Well, it’s typical in several ways, Margaret. First, it is one of those open seats, and with 14, that’s almost–over 40 percent of the seats that are up. It’s the largest class of seats where no incumbent is running that we’ve had since direct election of the Senate began in 1913. So this makes it much more typical than we would normally have. It’s typical as well in a host of other ways. What we have here is a very close contest. We have more Senate seats in play this time, well over half of them, where you wouldn’t be surprised whatever the outcome is, than we’ve had before. And at the same time, we have a Democrat who’s trying to portray his Republican opponent as somebody who’s kind off in an extreme. We have a lot of Republican candidates this time, particularly in those open seats, who ended up being more staunch conservatives, and where they’ve beaten off the moderate Republicans in primaries where Democrats are trying to make that charge work. And if they do manage to make it work–and this is going to be one test case–they’re going to be in very strong shape here.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree?

BOB BENENSON, Congressional Quarterly: I agree. In fact, one thing that’s very typical about this election is this casting about the charge of extremism. If you wanted to boil the campaign down, not only in Colorado but in many states, you have the Republican shouting, “liberal, liberal, liberal,” and you have the Democrat shouting, “Newt, Newt, Newt.” And, of course, Newt Gingrich is the House Speaker, but there is still this effort to connect Senate candidates to him or in states where Bob Dole isn’t running well for President, you hear a lot about the Gingrich-Dole agenda.

MARGARET WARNER: And Norm, where are the Democrats’ biggest opportunities to pick up either the three seats they need to tie control of the Senate or the four seats they’d need to take control?

MR. ORNSTEIN: Well, interestingly, Colorado is typical in another sense, that this is a Republican seat, as the piece noted. It’s Hank Brown, the Republican Senator, who’s leaving. And there are a number of seats in the West, which has been a Republican stronghold, where Democrats believe they have some opportunities. We have open seats. The Kansas seat, the West and the plains, that Bob Dole is vacating is actually one of those contests with a Democrat charging extremist and a Republican charging liberal that’s up for grabs. We have an open seat in Wyoming that Alan Simpson is leaving, where Democrats believe they have a chance. And there are some incumbents like Larry Craig in Idaho and Larry Pressler in South Dakota, where Democrats see great opportunities. So what you have here is a very conservative region in an area that has been staunchly Republican but where Democrats see great opportunities for pick-ups that could negate some of the instances where they may lose their own seats elsewhere.

MARGARET WARNER: Any other reason you see why Republicans are having some difficulties here in the West?

MR. BENENSON: Part of it has to do with the national trend. A year ago, you would have never imagined Democrats having opportunities in states like Wyoming or even Colorado, certainly in Kansas, where Bob Dole, the favorite son, is a presidential nominee. The Democratic fortunes nationwide have really rebounded over the last year. President Clinton is leading in polls, and the opportunities have certainly developed in this region, as elsewhere. The plain states and the Rocky Mountain states have never been totally nonaversed to electing Democrats. They’re generally conservative, and I think by and large, the numbers lean to the Republicans. But we’ve seen many Democrats elected from that region. Gary Hart held the seat in Colorado for a long time.

MR. ORNSTEIN: We have another couple of reasons that we ought to mention, Margaret. One is idiosyncrasy. I mean, we have a lot of individual contests here where sometimes issues have played for one candidate or another, in Idaho, for example, nobody ever thought that Larry Craig might have some difficulty. The question is a nuclear waste depository that has just rebounded against him. You also have–

MARGARET WARNER: Explain that. That he essentially agreed with the governor that the federal government could deposit nuclear waste in that state.

MR. ORNSTEIN: It’s–as you might imagine–in every respect a hot issue, where that waste goes, and there were real conflicts with Nevada. Craig managed to mishandle the issue in a way that has alienated both sides and now finds himself in a tough contest much more because of that than because of a national trend. The other thing that ought to be mentioned is the environment just briefly; that it isn’t playing out West the way it might have 10 years ago, where to be an environmentalist was to be called a dirty word in many states in the West. Now there’s a much greater division, and the New West has a lot of people, including some who are fiscal conservatives, who want a clean West, and so it’s not working for the Republicans the way the issue did a decade ago.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s flip this around. Where are the Republicans’ best opportunities to take seats from the Democrats?

MR. BENENSON: The Republicans’ best opportunities are mainly in the South. But even there, the opportunity isn’t seeming to pan out as greatly as Republicans were anticipating. There are four Democratic open seats in the South–in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The whole region which is basically conservative has been trending to the Republican Party at all levels over the last few elections. So there was an anticipation with all these open seat opportunities that the Republicans would be able to manifest great gains, even maybe take a shot at winning 60 seats, which is regarded as a filibuster-proof majority. But the Democrats recruited quite well in a couple of these circumstances, the better prospects for Democrats as a whole are kicking in, in a couple of places. Even in Alabama, which is very conservative, has been very Republican-trending at the statewide level. Jeff Sessions, who’s state attorney general, expected to be a very strong favorite to win the open seat being vacated by Democrat Howell Heflin, and between the fact that he’s run a rather lackluster campaign and the fact that State Sen. Roger Bedford is running a very dynamic campaign, that state’s in play for the Democrats, where they never thought they would have a chance.

MR. ORNSTEIN: You know, what’s so interesting here, and it tells you about the Senate, uh, as a very different institution–Arkansas, which is the President’s home state in a year where presidentially, of course, looks terrific, is a state where the Republican probably has a slight edge right now, while Kansas, Bob Dole’s home state and his own seat, is a toss-up. So we don’t have a national trend here, and these regions, the West, which has been Republican, where they’ve got some problems, the South, which has been trending Republican, where their opportunities aren’t generally working out the way they would necessarily want, shows that we don’t have a national political tie towards one party or the other. The bottom line, though, is that Democrats have some opportunities here to make some gains, even possibly to take a majority, but only if everything breaks away in both regions.

MARGARET WARNER: Yeah. We should point out that Republicans don’t have to pick up a thing, I mean, if the Democrats, who obviously have to. And finally very briefly, what impact, if any, do you think the presidential contest is having? Are there coattails? Are there reverse coattails, or–

MR. BENENSON: It’s always hard, it’s terrifically hard to measure coattails. If President Clinton wins by an enormous amount–I mean, that’s what the polls are showing today–if the election were held today, there almost inevitably would be some sort of coattail effect, but people have gotten very used to split-ticket voting. It’s not like the old days when they go into the voting booth and flip one level–one lever, Democrat or Republican. And so it makes it much more unpredictable. And people just really tend to vote on the basis of the candidates.

MR. ORNSTEIN: We’ve had Senate elections where all the close contests went one way. This doesn’t look to be one of them. The toss-ups are probably going to break a little bit more evenly, and that gives Republicans who, after all, if they can pick up a Democratic seat or two, then would have to lose five to lose their majority, breathing a little bit easier about the Senate.

MARGARET WARNER: Great. Norm, Bob, thank you both very much.

MR. BENENSON: Thank you.

MR. ORNSTEIN: Thanks, Margaret.