September 4, 2002
House reins hinge on voter mood
Jittery economy, corporate scandals likely to figure in
By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – Memo to Democrats running for the House: Tell
seniors the president may as well put Social Security money in
slot machines if he puts it in stocks. Point out how great the
economy was when Democrats were in charge. And post
pictures of WorldCom execs – with lines through their faces – at
every campaign stop.
Memo to Republicans: Never use the words stock market and
Social Security in the same sentence. Lament how corporate
scandals sprang directly from "the culture of dishonesty"
encouraged by former President Clinton. And post pictures of
Osama bin Laden – with a line through his face – at every
This year's battle for Congress offers a rare opportunity for both
houses to change hands. Republicans are playing up a popular
president and his war on terrorism, and Democrats are focusing
on business scandals and sinking markets. And the experts can't
decide if voters will stay home because there are few
competitive races, or flock to the polls because of corporate
irresponsibility and lost jobs.
"If voters go to the polls with corporate scandals at the top of
their list, they're probably going to vote Democratic," said Jack
Pitney, a former Republican strategist who teaches government
at Claremont McKenna College. "If they go (thinking about) the
war on terrorism and tax cuts, Republicans" have the advantage.
Because the once-a-decade redrawing of political boundaries
virtually guaranteed re-election for most House members,
relatively few seats are considered up-for-grabs this year. Out of
435 House races, 46 are competitive, according to the Cook
Political Report, a nonpartisan analysis of Congress.
That means fewer chances for Democrats to win the six seats
they need to retake the House, which they lost in 1994, or for
Republicans to take the Senate from Democrats, who have a
Still, the possibility for the House to change hands is
strengthened by what experts call apprehension or anger among
voters. The mood, they say, stems from corporate accounting
scandals involving Enron Corp. and WorldCom, the jittery stock
market and doubts about retirement security. It does not help
Republicans controlling the House that tax receipts into the
federal treasury have plunged to a degree not seen since the end
of World War II.
All this could send voters to polls in larger numbers than
expected, some analysts said. "Voters are very angry at
institutions – corporations, government, the church –
everything and everybody that has let them down," said
independent pollster John Zogby, who believes corporate
scandals improve Democrats' chances because the average voter
sees the GOP as hand-in-hand with big business.
Other experts, as well as leading Republicans, acknowledge a
change in voter mood. GOP pollster Bill McInturff says House
races could be more competitive because the political climate is
unsettled. Amy Walter, who studies House races for the Cook
Political Report, said polling demonstrates "voters are definitely
apprehensive." Curtis Gans, dir ector of the nonpartisan
Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, first
detected the mood when more people voted in primaries than he
"I credit that to economic worry," Gans said. "You always blame
(that on) the party in power."
Sixty-six percent of American voters have 401(k)s or IRAs.
Moreover, voters in midterm elections tend to be better
educated and more affluent than the average voter in
presidential election years.
"These are people more likely to look at their 401(k)s and say,
'Oh my God,' " said Barbara Sinclair, the University of California
Los Angeles' Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American politics.
"But it's very hard to know how that will translate into voting
At the National Republican Congressional Committee, which
helps elect GOP candidates to Congress, spokesman Steve
Schmidt said Democrats are also harmed by corporate scandals
because some have taken large contributions from WorldCom or
"There has been no deterioration in the position of a single
Republican's chances since WorldCom," Schmidt said. "All these
national trend stories have absolutely no bearing on the climate
of House races."
Indeed, local issues and political dynamics often have more to
do with determining a congressional election than national
Walter agreed that polls favoring incumbent House Republicans
have not changed much, and that the new mood is not
pronounced enough to conclude it will help Democrats.
"Whether their (apprehension) translates to individual (races)
has yet to be seen," she said. Analysts rate only one of
California's 53 House seats as competitive – the one held by Rep.
Gary Condit, the Democrat romantically linked to slain intern
Chandra Levy. Condit lost the primary to Assemblyman Dennis
Cardoza, who is running against GOP state Sen. Dick Monteith.
Though polls show Cardoza with a substantial lead in this Central
Valley contest, GOP leaders continue to pour time, money and
marquee names into what they consider a crucial race.
Redistricting did produce a few interesting races. Because
political boundaries change with population shifts, House seats
in some slower-growing states were eliminated, forcing
incumbents to run against each other. In Mississippi, it's
Democrat Ronnie Shows against Republican Chip Pickering. In
Illinois, GOP Rep. John Shimkus of Collinsville is believed to
have the advantage over fellow Rep. David Phelps, an Eldorado
Democrat. And in Connecticut, corporate crime is the big issue
in the contest between Republican Nancy Johnson and
Democrat Jim Maloney.
In Pennsylvania, redistricting forced out three incumbents and
put longtime GOP Rep. George Gekas into a tough fight against
Tim Holden, a Democratic moderate said to be a better
campaigner than Gekas.
In Georgia, redistricting helped force out two ideologically
strident incumbents – Republican Bob Barr and Democrat
Cynthia McKinney – who were denied renomination in the
Copley News Service correspondents Dori Meinert and Paul Krawzak contributed to this report.