Election day unlikely to transform Congress

Because the two major parties are heading into the 2002 midterm elections very evenly matched, each race is unusually important. Less than two years ago, 110 million votes were cast for president, but the final outcome hinged on the votes of just 537 Floridians. The 2000 election resulted in a Senate that was split 50-50 (a division that became 50-49-1 when James M. Jeffords of Vermont defected from the Republican Party to become an independent) and a House in which the Republican edge narrowed to 51 percent. Polls show Americans split evenly in their own party identification, giving the Republican and the Democratic parties roughly 45 percent support each. Other than control of the White House, the one notable exception to this partisan equilibrium is in governorships, where Republicans enjoy a 27-21 advantage.

The political environment appears as level as the underlying strengths of the two parties. Although Democrats appeared to be on the verge of opening up a substantial advantage late last summer, and Republicans opened up big leads immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, today the terrain doesn't favor either party.

President Bush's job-approval ratings have declined a bit but remain high, around 74 percent. Yet his strength no longer seems to be translating into an advantage for GOP candidates whose names will be on the ballot in November. On the other hand, the erosion in Bush's popularity is not boosting Democratic fortunes.

So, what are the parties' prospects? Republicans retain a clear advantage in the fight for control of the House. And Democrats seem destined to score healthy gains among the governorships. The biggest question is whether Democrats can hang on to their one-seat Senate majority.

For months, the parties had very similar numbers of Senate seats in jeopardy. Three Democratic incumbents were in toss-up races: Jean Carnahan of Missouri, Timothy P. Johnson of South Dakota, and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. And three Republican incumbents also looked quite vulnerable: Wayne Allard of Colorado, Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, and Bob Smith of New Hampshire.

Three other Democratic senators faced tough challenges but still had an advantage--Max Cleland of Georgia, Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana. And Republicans held similarly competitive open Senate seats in North Carolina, Texas, and South Carolina.

But in recent months, the Senate picture has shifted. In Tennessee, incumbent Fred Thompson opted to retire, creating a fourth Republican open seat and putting it in play. (Democrats have no open seats.) Also, the competitiveness of the Louisiana race is now questioned because one Republican contender dropped out and the remaining one, Rep. John Cooksey, is struggling. Polls show that Landrieu's lead is stronger than ever.

Third, while expectations had been high that Rep. Greg Ganske would give Harkin a tough fight in Iowa, Ganske's campaign has been slow to get off the ground. Finally, three polls taken before Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk won the April 9 Democratic runoff election in Texas showed Kirk doing well against state Attorney General John Cornyn, the GOP nominee. When Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas announced his retirement, few observers expected Democrats to have a real shot at his seat, but that race will likely be very close. Together, these factors give Democrats a bit of an edge in the Senate.

In the House, while Republicans have not scored the big gains from redistricting that they had predicted, the new maps have reduced the number of competitive seats to the point where neither side has much of an opportunity for gaining many seats. With Republicans holding on to a slim majority, that works in their favor. The Democrats' fight is not hopeless, but it's decidedly uphill.

In the governorships, the view that Republicans, who have 23 seats at stake this year to only 11 for Democrats, can only go down is absolutely correct. Republicans are paying the price for having a great 1994 and keeping so many governorships in 1998. Now, with a dozen GOP-held governorships open, the Republicans will have to fight to keep their losses to a minimum.

With six months to go before Election Day, the Republicans have a decisive edge in their fight to keep the House. The Democrats, meanwhile, have a slight edge in their fight to keep the Senate and have a strong chance to at least pull even with the GOP in control of governorships.