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Charles E. Cook Jr.

Election Forecast:
Close Calls and Long Shots

A year ago, the conventional wisdom was that Vice President


Albert Gore would cruise to an easy and early Democratic presidential
nomination while Republicans would likely face a long, divisive, and costly
fight for their party’s nod. This would leave the eventual Republican nomi-
nee at a distinct disadvantage, as Robert Dole was in 1996, playing catch-
up, with anti-Dole, anti-Republican media, sponsored by the Democratic
Party, having run for almost a year before the Kansan officially became the
GOP nominee. Today, Texas governor George W. Bush seems almost effort-
less in his drive to win an early Republican nomination, and it is Gore facing
the surprisingly tough fight from former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey.
In the fight for Congress, there have been important momentum shifts as
well. With the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly divided between 222
Republicans and 213 Democrats, the closest since the 83rd Congress (1953-
55), it’s likely to be well into election night before we will know for sure who
will control the House. Early this year, it looked more likely than not that
Democrats would succeed in scoring the net gain of five seats necessary to
win a majority, with the dark cloud of impeachment still hanging heavily
over the Republican Party. By late spring and early summer, that cloud had
largely dissipated. At that point, it looked as if Republicans had a good
chance of retaining their narrow majority. By late summer and early au-
tumn, Democrats once again seem to have regained their momentum. Most
notably, Republicans were forced to give up on their cherished $792 million
tax cut, then had to retreat on use of a budgetary gimmick to get around

Charles E. Cook Jr. writes weekly columns for the National Journal and CongressDailyAM,
published by the National Journal Group. He is a political analyst for Cable News
Network and the editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report, a Washington-based,
nonpartisan newsletter analyzing U.S. politics and elections.

Copyright © 1999 by The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Washington Quarterly • 23:1 pp. 247–253.

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l Charles E. Cook Jr.

spending ceilings after Bush warned that they were “balancing the budget
on the backs of the poor.” While the outcome of the House elections is still
very much in doubt, even the most partisan of Republicans concede that
things have not gone well for them in recent months and that a loss of their
majority is a very real threat.
In the Senate, the momentum in recent months has largely worked to the
Democrats’ benefit, though it remains highly unlikely that they can score
the five-seat net gain necessary to regain control of the body if they hold
the presidency, six seats if they don’t. With the Senate currently split be-
tween 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats, today Democrats look likely to
gain between one and three seats, moving their numbers up to the 46-48
seat range in the 100-seat body.

Presidential Race

Wealthy publisher Steve Forbes has managed to consolidate his position as


the conservative alternative to Bush, benefiting from the departures of tele-
vision commentator Patrick Buchanan and former Vice President Dan
Quayle. Forbes has also benefited from the adversity that has faced social
conservative activist and Family Research Council president Gary Bauer,
who suffered from unverified but published suggestions that he had an inap-
propriate relationship with a female deputy campaign manager.
Forbes’ own ability as a candidate is light years ahead of where he was
four years ago. His campaign apparatus is also first-rate and his money sup-
ply seemingly endless. The only question is whether his current level of sup-
port is elastic—can he expand much beyond his current base of flat tax
supporters and economic issue devotees? The conventional wisdom is that
he can’t, but with his self-financing continuing, nothing seems likely to
drive him from the race anytime soon.
Former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole’s inability to capitalize
on her strong third-place finish in the Iowa Republican straw poll in August
forced an early end to her campaign. This leaves Senator John McCain com-
peting with Forbes for the position of shooting the gap in case of a Bush
gaffe. The Arizonan is currently riding high from favorable publicity for his
recent autobiographical book tour, press coverage during the crisis in
Kosovo, and the Senate debate over campaign-finance reform.
While McCain’s funding is adequate but hardly impressive, he often
makes up for it in his ability to make and stay in the news. His compelling
life story and independent streak keep him viable, but ultimately his success
is still predicated on a complete breakdown of Bush and the Bush machine.
While it is entirely possible that Bush will stumble along the way, given

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his enormous lead in money, endorsements and poll numbers, it would have
to be a very impressive fall to kill his frontrunner status.

House

Given that a whopping 94 percent of all House incumbents seeking reelec-


tion are reelected, the chilling statistic for Republicans is that only five
Democratic incumbents are not seeking reelection, while eighteen Republi-
cans are stepping down. The actual Republican exposure to open seat losses
is less than these numbers suggest, as many of those open GOP seats are in
relatively safe Republican districts. But there remains greater risk for Re-
publicans in open seats than for Democrats.
This increased exposure to losses is partially offset by the fact that many
of the Republican open seats are in districts
favorable to the GOP. However, it still puts
Republicans at much greater risk than
Democrats. Even discounting the safe open
I t’s likely to be well
seats, Republicans have five or six highly vul-
into Election Night
nerable open seats compared to just two or before we will know
three for Democrats. That disparity may well for sure who will
give Democrats a two-to-four seat gain com-
control the House.
ing out of the open seats, but Democrats also
have several of their own incumbents in seri-
ous trouble, knocking each of those numbers
off by a bit. Assuming that there is no signifi-
cant tide favoring either party, Democrats can probably count on losing at
least one incumbent House member; two is more likely; three or more would
indicate that Democrats are in for a bad year. In short, Democrats must still
beat at least three or four—and perhaps five or six—Republican incumbents
to capture the House, a prospect that is entirely possible but not yet prob-
able. Democratic strategists concede that while they have had the momen-
tum for several months now, they need a couple more key Republican
retirements coupled with the recruitment of several more top-notch chal-
lengers or the elevation of a few more second-tier challengers to top-rank
status before they will feel good about capturing the body. At this stage, the
House is simply teetering on the edge.

Senate

Democratic hopes are buoyed by Democratic Delaware governor Tom


Carper’s recent announcement that he will challenge GOP Senator William
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l Charles E. Cook Jr.

Roth, and the news that former New Jersey Republican governor Tom Kean
will not step into to fill the void left by Governor Christine Todd Whitman’s
departure from that state’s open seat contest.
With a little less than a year to go between now and the general election,
there is obviously a lot that can and will happen in each of the races. Giving
Democrats the considerable benefit of the doubt on the presidential race,
meaning that they only need a five-seat gain to win a Senate majority rather
than six without the White House, here’s how the Senate races match up at
this point.
First, look at seats currently held by Democrats. Democrats seem hope-
lessly behind in the open seat in Nevada where Senator Dick Bryan is retir-
ing. Former GOP Representative John Ensign, who came within 428 votes of
beating Senator Harry Reid in last year’s contest, is running again. It ap-
pears that trial lawyer Ed Bernstein will be the Democratic nominee.
Bernstein has some name recognition, but also has surprisingly high nega-
tives. In a recent general election match-up, Ensign had a 17-point lead.
Few give Democrats much of a chance of holding the seat. That puts Demo-
crats down one seat.
The next most endangered Democratic seat would seem to be in Vir-
ginia where two-term incumbent Charles Robb is currently trailing former
Republican Governor George Allen by 12 percentage points in the polls.
Robb has certainly faced adversity before and may well pull this one out
again but for now, Republicans have the edge in this race. This puts
Democrats down two seats.
The Democratic seat in the third most danger would seem to be the open
seat contest to fill Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s seat in New York.
Most recent polls show New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani leading First
Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton narrowly. Giuliani runs up much higher num-
bers among Republicans and men than Clinton does among Democrats and
women. Independents break heavily for the mayor, while Clinton carries
union members by three percentage points. Again, this race is far from over,
but today it seems more likely to go Republican, putting Democrats down
three seats.
At this point in the cycle, the open seat in New Jersey seems to be leaning
Democrats’ way. Their nominee will be either political unknown multimillion-
aire and former cochairman of Goldman Sachs Jon Corzine, or former Gover-
nor Jim Florio. Florio is an able politician, but he has accumulated
considerable political baggage over the years, with some recent polls suggest-
ing that he is stuck around 41 percent, unable to rise above that level.
There are only two other Democratic seats that could conceivably come
into play—incumbent Senators Jeff Bingaman in New Mexico and Dianne

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Feinstein in California—but both incumbents look secure at the moment.


For the purposes of this math exercise, let’s say Democrats lose three of
their own seats, holding the other eleven seats, including New Mexico and
California.
On the other side of the political equation are the 19 Republican seats up
next year. The most vulnerable of these is probably the open seat in Florida,
where two-term Senator Connie Mack is retiring. Democrats have settled
on Insurance Commissioner and former Representative Bill Nelson to be
their standard-bearer. Republicans seem most
likely to nominate either Representative Bill
McCollum or state Education Secretary Tom
Gallagher. McCollum is the favorite among
R epublicans
concede that a loss
conservatives who usually dominate prima-
ries, while Gallagher, the more moderate, of their majority is a
might theoretically be better positioned for very real threat.
the general election as many Republicans feel
that McCollum is too tainted by his role in
the impeachment trial. Perhaps the only hope
Republicans have is the independent candidacy of state Representative
Willie Logan, an African American, who they hope will siphon off enough
black votes out of the Democratic column to give them a victory. While
Florida is likely to be competitive, it currently leans in Nelson’s favor, drop-
ping the net Democratic loss from three to two seats.
The second most vulnerable Republican seat is Roth’s in Delaware. A re-
cent Mason-Dixon survey gave Carper a ten-point lead over the incumbent.
While some Republican operatives familiar with the race express some skep-
ticism that Roth is ten points behind, they concede that he may well be run-
ning even or slightly behind, and that the 78-year-old veteran has his work
cut out for him. Roth did face an aggressive challenge from then-state At-
torney General Charles Oberly in 1994, winning 56 percent to 43 percent,
but that was the tidal wave election of 1994 and Carper is certainly a stron-
ger candidate than Oberly. Given Carper’s lead at this point, mark this
down as the second GOP loss, bringing Democrats to a net loss of one.
Next comes a group of four seats that each look to be roughly fifty-fifty
contests today: newly appointed Senator Lincoln Chafee’s seat in Rhode Is-
land, and those of incumbents Spencer Abraham in Michigan, John Ashcroft
in Missouri, and Rod Grams in Minnesota. In Rhode Island, GOP Senator
John Chafee’s death on October 24 changed the landscape in the race to suc-
ceed him; Chafee had announced earler this year that he would not seek re-
election. The senator’s son and Warwick mayor, Lincoln Chafee, was named
to fulfill the remainder of his father’s term. The younger Chafee was already

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l Charles E. Cook Jr.

running for the seat and now has the advantage of running as the incumbent.
Democrats are still embroiled in a primary battle between Representative Bob
Weygand and 1988 Senate nominee Richard Licht. The race seemed to tilt
Democratic until former Republican state Attorney General Arlene Violet an-
nounced that she would run as an independent. Violet, a former Catholic nun
and currently a talk radio host, appears to be pulling more out of the Demo-
cratic than Republican column. A recent Brown University poll put a three-
way race between Weygand/Chafee/Violet essentially tied.
Michigan’s Abraham is locked into a tight battle with Representative
Debbie Stabenow, while Missouri’s Ashcroft is
similarly in a death match with Governor Mel
D emocrats seem Carnahan. Both races appear today to be too
well poised to score close to call. While Grams has not drawn
nearly the first-tier opposition that other vul-
a one, two or three nerable incumbents have, he is widely seen has
seat gain. the most vulnerable incumbent up in 2000. He
recently compounded his problems by dismiss-
ing his highly regarded campaign consultant
and chief of staff. Privately, Grams’ colleagues
are apoplectic about the situation and see little way to remedy it, suggesting
that their best hope is that he can muddle through it given the rather slow-
starting Democratic field. Out of these four fifty-fifty races, let’s say the
GOP lose two seats, shifting Democrats from a net loss of one seat to a
Democratic net gain of one seat.
Next come the second tier and longer-shot races against incumbents
Conrad Burns in Montana, Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, and Slade
Gorton in Washington. In each case, Democrats have at least one highly
credible candidate against an incumbent who is vulnerable, yet hardly a
pushover. Add to that Vemont’s Jim Jeffords, who could face either a top-
tier challenge from Representative Bernie Sanders or a longer-shot from one
of two lesser-known Democrats. While some suggest that Sanders’ long de-
cision-making process is a sign that he ultimately will not run, others sug-
gest that Sanders’ best shot is to get in the race at the very last moment,
given that Jeffords can probably outspend him by a wide margin. Out of
these four, there seems a better than even chance that Democrats will pick
up one, for a net gain of two seats.
When both sides of the equation are added up, Democrats end up with a
two-seat net gain, still three seats from a majority if Democrats hold the
White House, four seats short if Republicans win the presidency. In order to
see a five- or six-seat net gain Democrats would need to sweep virtually ever
other competitive or nearly competitive Republican seat. Is it possible? Of

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course. Landslides do occasionally happen; witness 1980, 1986, and 1994.


But, two out of three of these were midterm elections in which the party
holding the White House lost large numbers of Senate seats, while the other
was during a presidential landslide victory. There are very few people today
predicting a Democratic presidential landslide in 2000. In short, Democrats
seem well poised to score a one, two, or three seat gain. At that point, they
could declare victory, knowing that they are then much closer to a majority
in 2002 when Republicans have more seats at risk than do Democrats. Or
they can keep expectations up that they can win a majority, setting them-
selves up for a likely disappointment.

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