November 4, 1998
The results are in. Margaret Warner talks with Senator Mitch McConnell and Senator Robert Torricelli about what the elections mean for both parties.
MARGARET WARNER: For analysis of last night's results we're joined now by two senators, who are chairman and vice chairman of their respective party's Senate Campaign Committees. These committees recruit candidates to run for the Senate and raise and spend money to support them. Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democrat Robert Torricelli of New Jersey. Welcome, gentlemen. Senator McConnell, just a couple of months ago you and others in the party leadership were talking about getting a 60-vote veto-proof majority in the Senate, big gains in the House. What happened?
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, I was not talking about getting 60. Some were. We'd hoped certainly to improve our position, but as it turned out, Margaret, this was a very contented electorate out there that made virtually no change. As your setup piece indicated, eight new United States Senators, four Democrats, four Republicans, fifty-five, forty-five current Senate, fifty-five, forty-five in the next Senate, Republican. I think clearly the voters were not of a mind to make any dramatic changes yesterday.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you disappointed?
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Sure. We would love to have had more seats. There's a race in Nevada that's down to 300 votes. I don't know whether that'll change the outcome or not. But we're obviously pleased to win the open seat in Kentucky and to win the seat in Illinois, as well as the other new Republicans who are coming in.
MARGARET WARNER: What's your analysis of what happened last night?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: Surprised. I didn't know a pundit or a pollster who predicted the outcome. We were in a position where we had - unfortunately had several Democratic Senators retire - that made us vulnerable. And, undoubtedly, our weakest class of Senators - the class of 1992 - we felt particularly vulnerable. So we expected to lose at least two seats. To come out of this election with 45 Democratic senators was remarkable and I think an indication that something in the country quite fundamental was going on.
MARGARET WARNER: Which is?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: I think it was a confluence of two particular factors: one, a miscalculation by the Republican leadership engaged in a very public fight with President Clinton about the hiring of schoolteachers. And the principal issue now of the American electorate at this point, in my judgment, is education - educational quality - construction of schools, class size. It was a fundamental mistake to define that as a major issue in the election. And then the second, the backdrop to that fight about education was this continuing issue of the Starr investigation and a belief by the American people that it was all out of perspective and was preventing the Congress from doing any other work. I don't think there's any other way to explain such a rapid change in the fortunes of the political parties and why we held on to these 35 seats.
MARGARET WARNER: What's your take on that?
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I think it's largely an issue of selection. Every one of these campaigns was sort of custom-crafted to the particular state and the particular candidates in those states. In Kentucky, for example, a state with which I have some familiarity, the Republican actually trumped the Democrat on Social Security, an unusual, arguably historic election in that sense. So I think it was largely an issueless election now. Bob makes a good argument, but I don't see any common theme running through these Senate races.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, as you know, today there's a lot of finger pointing going on in your party, and many are saying that the reason it was an issueless election was that Republicans in the Congress didn't present a set of issues - a compelling set of issues - as say you did in '94. What's your answer to that?
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I'm not sure that it would have been possible to achieve a set of issues to run on in '98. But it might have been. And in looking back and kind of rehashing it, we might have been better off to pursue some nationalization of the election. Our view - I think it was correct - was that nationalizing the election was something the President was more likely to be able to achieve than us. And I think the Democrats deserve a lot of credit for one thing they did very skillfully, Bob. I think you all deserve credit for the turnout efforts that you made, which is really a technical thing. The labor unions and the Democratic state parties did a good job, I think, of activating and energizing the base. And I think that certainly helped the Democrats in a number of states.
MARGARET WARNER: How much do you owe your victories and these margins to (a) African-American voters and union voters, who did turn out? I mean, African-American turnout, in particular, was tremendous in certain states.
|The African-American vote|
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: The most astonishing statistic I heard all day is that 40 percent of the electorate in this -- this last Tuesday were either members of minority groups or union household members. It's an amazing statistic. Minority voters came out in droves, I think partially motivated by the Starr investigation, the treatment of President Clinton, who's had very strong support in the African-American community. But I think too in the labor communities a lot of it was this feeling that health care coverage was endangered, this overwhelming and national consensus they wanted to do something about managed care in the country, and again, I'll return to this issue of educational quality. Within working-class communities in this country there's a feeling that children are being denied the opportunities they should have.
MARGARET WARNER: You mentioned turnout, yet, the total turnout was actually even lower than in '94, as I understand it. It was something like 36, 37 percent.
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Right.
MARGARET WARNER: I mean, if they turned out so many of their voters, doesn't that suggest that Republicans maybe were quite dispirited or didn't turn out?
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, I think there's no question that among those who did chose to participate - and after all it was an off-year election with a rather contented electorate. Contented voters tend not to vote. Angry voters tend to vote. The Democrats did an excellent job of motivating their portion of those voters who are going to participate in an off-year election. We did a pretty good job of it as well, but we didn't do it as well overall. I think we did it in selective states pretty well. But we didn't do it as well overall. I think we did it in selected states pretty well. So my hat is off to them for their turnout efforts. I think it helped them in a number of places.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Staying with you for a minute, let me go to another point Sen. Torricelli raised, which was he thought that Republicans had emphasized this whole impeachment issue of the Lewinsky scandal too much. In retrospect, were those ads, that late ad done by your House counterparts - tying the President and Lewinsky scandal to the elections, were they a mistake?
|The impeachment issue.|
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: It's a good question. But the Clinton issue in terms of impeachment was not a factor in any Senate race in the country, not a one. Now, maybe it developed in some House races because of the running of the advertisement to which you refer, but I don't recall the issue being mentioned by either Democrat or Republicans in Senate races across the country. I think it simply wasn't there. Voters didn't want to talk about it, and candidates aren't foolish. They don't talk about things voters don't want to hear.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, what tells you that it actually had an effect on the election?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: I think that while the Republicans in the Senate did not emphasize it as an issue, the judgment of Newt Gingrich to run the advertising campaign and the harshness of language - combined with the sense that from health care reform to the education issue to the tobacco issue, the Congress was not making progress on any of these fundamental issues. The synergy that developed between those two concerns left an unmistakable image in people's minds. Their business just was not getting done.
MARGARET WARNER: Could that have happened, in other words, that to voters it appeared that in the absence of a Republican agenda that came through clearly that this seemed to dominate - I mean, that they connected the two somehow and blamed the - an apparent preoccupation with what they thought might be --
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, I think Bob makes a good point, that the impeachment issue may have been a motivating force for African-American voters. But I think they should -- the Democrats should be commended for and the labor unions was the technical aspect of it. They got on the phone and made the calls. They spent the money on contacting voters who, if they voted, in any year would be overwhelming, likely to vote for Democratic candidates, regardless of the issues, and so I think we should tip our hats to them for an outstanding turnout effort.
MARGARET WARNER: I have to ask you about campaign finance reform because Sen. Feingold in Wisconsin - whom as we all know - a big proponent of campaign finance reform - said essentially you are his real opponent because you poured so much money into Mark Neumann's race. Did he beat you?
|Campaign finance reform|
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Actually, Wisconsin was about sixth or eight on the list of funding priorities. The reason Russ Feingold had a tough race is because Mark Neumann ran a great campaign. I mean, Mark Neumann made that race dead even in early September, and at that point - and even later in the campaign he was one of our very best opportunities to win and the big issues in Wisconsin were taxes and Social Security, which Neumann used very effectively, and he came up a little short in the end, which is what frequently happens to challengers.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you think that race says about campaign finance reform?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: I've come to exactly the opposition conclusion that you've come to. I'm very glad that Russ Feingold has survived, and I admire his courage. But I think the message to candidates around the country is that if you do not engage in these practices of soft money, if you do not have independent expenditures in your race, you are going to put yourself --
MARGARET WARNER: Which Feingold refused to do.
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: Which he refused to do - that you are courting disaster. So unfortunately, I think the message that goes out to candidates is exactly, unfortunately, the wrong message.
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I think we need to set the record straight though, in spite of Sen. Feingold's protestations, the Democratic Senatorial committee continued to do independent expenditures in his behalf. The environmental groups were in there doing issue ads on his behalf, as well as the AFL-CIO. So I think we need to set the record straight in terms of the number of outside groups that were in Wisconsin on behalf of Senator Feingold, whether he was saying he wanted them to go away.
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: He genuinely ran it as the only candidate in the country who's receiving our support and our money and I think genuinely was angry at us for spending the money. It was a little disconcerting.
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I don't doubt his sincerity but as a practical matter --
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: It happens.
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: It happens.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think there's any common thread in the two incumbents you had who lost, Sen. Faircloth in North Carolina, Sen. D'Amato in New York?
|The defeated incumbents|
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: They both had very capable opponents. Sen. Faircloth knew he was in a dog fight in the spring. That race in North Carolina remained close all year long. Sen. D'Amato always has a close race, and he knew that whoever won the primary he would be in a difficult contest, and New York is a state where Bob Dole got 31 percent of the vote in 1996, we anticipated tough races in North Carolina and New York; unfortunately, we didn't win them.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you want to comment on this too, or should I ask you about the one incumbent race you all lost?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: We saw very early that both of those incumbent Republicans were in trouble - not just a few months ago - but two years ago. Alfonse D'Amato - his negatives were simply too high - he's a remarkable campaigner. He was a very good Senator, but he was always in trouble, and a victim somewhat of the fact that the Northeast and large metropolitan areas in the country are increasingly Democrat because of choice and gun control and a host of other issues.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And then why did Sen. Carol Moseley Braun - why was she the one Democratic incumbent to lose?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: The most remarkable thing about Carol Moseley Braun is that she made it such a close race. She was losing by a margin for a long time, largely because of problems she had had early in her term, the financing of her campaign, some ethical charges against her. She was a very good Senator with so much in fighting for school reconstruction. We hate to lose her, but the fact is she had a heavy burden to bear in the campaign.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, there is a lot of talk - and I don't know if it's just inside the beltway chatter today - about Republicans being unhappy and talking about changing the leadership. Do you think that Speaker Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Lott, that their jobs are secure, or do you think there might be some changes?
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I think Senator Lott is secure, I can't comment on the House because I simply don't serve there. I think we will discuss the future at our leadership meeting the first week in December, but I think Sen. Lott is in very solid shape.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Senator McConnell, Sen. Torricelli, thank you both.