House election focus
October 21, 2002
Contrary to what Washington politicians would have
voters believe, Tip O'Neill's axiom that all politics is local is
holding true in this year's race for control of the House of
For months, Republican and Democratic leaders on
Capitol Hill have been hammering on national issues that they feel
favor their respective parties: the war on terror for Republicans,
and the anemic economy for Democrats.
But for all of their efforts,
an examination of the key races shows that control of the narrowly
divided 435-seat House, in which Republicans have a slim six-seat
majority, is hinging on a matrix of smaller issues that are often
"In a lot of ways, it's going to be race by race
by race. A lot could come down to which candidate is getting the
farm vote in his district, or issues of character, or a whole range
of quirky, unusual factors," said Carroll Doherty, editor at large
at the Pew Research Center.
Between 30 and 40 races will determine
which way the House swings in November, a number that reflects the
tremendous advantage held by incumbents in the House, a consensus of
analysts from both parties said.
In almost all of those races,
concerns about the economy at large and the war on terror have taken
a backseat. In some cases, that's because candidates have taken
remarkably similar stances on the major issues.
In South Dakota,
for example, 31-year-old Democrat Stephanie Herseth and 63-year-old
Republican Bill Janklow, a four-term South Dakota governor, agree on
almost everything: from the need to provide more aid to farmers to
fully backing President George W. Bush on a war with Iraq.
just happens to be one of those campaigns where there's not a lot of
differences on major philosophical issues," said Jim Hagen,
Janklow's campaign manager.
Many local races are focused on what
are, by Washington's standards, "second-tier issues," from a
candidate's support from pro-abortion groups, to differences on the
candidate's approach to social security reform or prescription drug
subsidies for seniors.
And in some districts, standard issues have
been thrust into the background all together. A glance at the
national election scene indicates that the balance of the House
could be influenced by issues as quirky as a candidate's good looks;
as scandalous as whether a candidate knowingly set up a sham third
party candidate to weaken his opponent; as odd as a candidate's
husband stealing an opponent's election signs; and as
straight-shooting as whether a Democrat can be both convincingly
anti-abortion and pro-gun.
Key national issues are not playing
along party lines this election season, making this election look
even more local than usual, a number of analysts said.
Republican in the White House, the ailing economy should be fodder
for Democrats. In early October, unemployment stood at 5.7 percent,
up from 4.2 percent when President George W. Bush took office. The
poverty rate rose last year and the typical household's income fell
for the first time in a decade.
Polls conducted by both parties
show the economy as the No. 1 concern of voters. But a number of
recent polls also show that voters have as much confidence in the
Republicans to improve the economy as they do in the Democrats.
"Voters aren't prepared to blame the Republicans for the state of
the economy," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. "I think
that the Democrats have the upper hand on a lot of the economic
issues, but Republicans have come back and really battled well."
Terrorism is also not factoring into most local level House races,
even though recent national level polls give Republicans the edge on
Advertising in the top House races, according to the
University of Wisconsin-Madison's Wisconsin Advertising Project, is
being dominated by ads on taxes and on the cost of prescription
drugs, each at 21 percent. The next most important issues are Social
Security, 17 percent, education, 16 percent, Medicare, 15 percent,
and terrorism and the Sept. 11 attacks at 2 percent.
issue of who will control Congress also doesn't seem to be playing
well in districts. A national opinion survey conducted this year by
the Pew Research Center found that 49 percent of voters said the
issue of which party controls Congress would not focus into their
vote, compared with 46 percent who said it would.
top issues of the moment on Capitol Hill seem far off from many
local races, where the fields of what will actually make or break
candidates around the country are notably muddy.
In South Dakota, a
state hit hard by this year's drought and suffering the affects of
the general economic downturn, polls a few weeks before the election
showed Herseth pulling even with Janklow.
Herseth has never held
public office, and her success so far seems to have little to do
with issues. In one recent debate at the Ramkota Hotel in Aberdeen,
for example, the two candidates agreed on almost everything, parting
ways only on the minor issue of federal Community Block Grants,
What tension exists is about issues of character
and experience. Janklow publicly refers to his attractive opponent
as "Stephanie" and has harped on the support she has received from
an out-of-state pro-abortion rights group. Herseth, the
granddaughter of a state governor and daughter of a state
legislator, is being helped by Janklow's gruff demeanor and
allegations that he may owe taxes on some $400,000 in campaign
"To me, this really comes down to, because we are living in
such perilous times, whether or not we can afford to send someone to
Washington who doesn't have any experience," said Hagen.
Minnesota, an unusual accusation of ticket loading has drawn
attention away from real issue differences on social security and
nuclear waste disposal in one of the riskiest national races for
Democrat Bill Luther, a fourth-term incumbent, has
become mired in accusations that his campaign manager encouraged a
third-party candidate to run on a "No-New Taxes" platform to siphon
support away from Republican challenger John Kline.
manager, Bob Dechine, told UPI that the introduction of the third
candidate, Sam Garst, was something "more akin to a prank".
Meanwhile, the debacle has spiraled out of control. Kline -- a
former Marine colonel who is challenging Luther for the third time
-- insisted he wouldn't attend debates unless the sham candidate was
invited. He publicly called on Luther to apologize or fire Dechine.
Luther has not agreed.
"It was a blatant attempt to deceive voters,
and it matters to people. We are not going to let the issue go,"
said Luther campaign manager Shawn Hooper, who said he thought the
issue could make or break the election.
In races where issue
differences are extremely narrow, some candidates are trying to
appeal to national themes: such as who should control of the House.
That's clearly been the case in one of the closest watched and
best-funded races in this election- the Maryland battle between
eight-term incumbent Connie Morella and Democrat Chris Van Hollen.
Morella, 71, is a well-liked Republican who votes like a Democrat.
Van Hollen is trying to convince voters that they want a real
Democrat who won't ever have side with the conservative Republican
leadership. Backed by heavy advertising, the strategy seems to be
working: the most recent polls show Morella trailing slightly.
of the critical races have veered into the absurd. In the
too-close-to call match up in Central Florida between incumbent Rep.
Kathleen Graham and Republican Ginny Brown-Waite, Brown-Waite's
husband recently admitted to stealing and mutilating a number of
Graham's campaign signs. Brown-Waite recently apologized to voters:
"It was the right thing to do," her campaign manager Brian Walsh
As Democrats battle for open seats in rural areas, and newly
created seats in the South and West, candidates emphasize their
traditional social values on litmus test issues such as abortion and
gun control. In Tennessee, for example, local Democratic leaders,
including Al Gore, have united strongly behind state Sen. Lincoln
Davis, a pro-gun, anti-abortion activist.
And the issue of Social
Security continues to resonate in many of the tightest races around
the country: in the dead-even fight between Democrat Jill Long
Thompson and Republican Chris Chocola for an open House seat in
Indiana; in Georgia over the battle over the seat vacated by
Republican Saxby Chabliss, now a candidate for the Senate, and in
West Virginia, where Democrats are blasting incumbent Shelly Moore
Capito over the idea of investing Social Security taxes in private
Of the 30 or so competitive seats, most analysts see the
majority of them leaning Republican. If the election were held
tomorrow, said Larry Sabato, a top election watcher from the
University of Virginia, Republicans in the House would not only
maintain their majority- they would gain seats.
win every seat that was leaning, likely or solidly Democratic, plus
every toss up race, and still come up two seats short of a
majority," agreed non-partisan political analyst Charlie Cook.
Republicans are generally thought to have favored better in the
recent redistricting. They have also raised more money overall --
with $130 million flowing into the National Republican Congressional
Committee for this election and $72.5 million for the Democratic
Congressional Campaign Committee, committee spokesmen said.
election approaches, there is still time for a strong national
breeze to push many of the tightest races in the Democrats'
"With so few voters deciding the election, its difficult
to make a definite call. Nov. 5 is going to be a long night," said
Rob Richie, the director of the non-partisan Center for Voting and