- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2000

The chances Republicans will hold on to the House this year have slightly improved since January, setting up the possibility that the GOP could control Congress and the White House in 2001.

While the 55-seat Senate Republican majority could rise or fall a little, it is highly unlikely the Democrats will take control. It is likely the GOP will pick up Democratic-held seats in Nevada, Virginia, Nebraska and perhaps in New York, but GOP Senate seats appear to be vulnerable in Florida, Minnesota, Michigan and Delaware.

At worst, the GOP could lose a couple of seats. At best, they could pick up three or four, cementing their hold on the Senate for the rest of this decade.

The toughest battleground is the House, where the GOP's slender majority is hanging by a cobweb and the Democrats are waging an all-out, well-financed war to regain control. And at the beginning of this year, it seemed Minority Leader Dick Gephardt would be the next Speaker. But the Republicans are making a surprising comeback under the steady hand of Speaker Dennis Hastert and the tactical leadership skills of Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican, the GOP's wily congressional campaign chairman.

Slowly but surely, House Republicans have been inching up in the generic polls as they push for tax cuts, vote to end the Social Security earnings penalty, and work to thwart Bill Clinton's big spending proposals.

In the meantime, the Democrats have had trouble with candidate recruitment in key districts and the number of seats the Democrats need to retake the House has gone up slightly, making their takeover bid more difficult.

Earlier this year, the Democrats had to pick up five seats to win control. Most analysts believed their prospects of doing so were better than even.

Now "the odds don't look quite as good" for the Democrats, says veteran elections analyst Charlie Cook. "Indeed, at this juncture, Republicans seem to have a very slight advantage."

Mr. Cook's latest analysis of the 435 House races for the National Journal "suggests that the outcome in November will probably range between a Republican gain of three seats to a Democratic gain of five, one seat short of a majority."

Democratic elections analyst Mark Gersh is also pessimistic about his party's chances this fall. "Unless there is a pickup of two or more seats in California, then Republicans will probably hold onto the House," he said.

Respected elections analyst Michael Barone also sees the trend moving in the GOP's direction. The reason: In nine generic polls taken so far, the Republicans remain virtually tied with the Democrats. That's a bullish sign for the GOP, since past surveys have routinely underestimated their vote.

"Republicans show more strength in these 'generic ballot' polls than at any time since the 1995-1996 budget showdown; if that continues, and if the generic numbers continue to underpredict Republican performance, Republicans stand to gain seats this cycle," Mr. Barone writes in U.S.News & World Report.

Several things have happened to bolster the GOP's position at this point in the 2000 elections.

First, Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia, a conservative, announced in January that he was leaving the Democrats to become an independent and would join the GOP caucus. That meant that the five seats Democrats needed to win the House had jumped to six.

Second, Rep. Owen Pickett of Virginia, a veteran conservative Democrat, decided to retire, turning a safe Democratic seat into a likely GOP pickup, making the Democrats' climb even steeper.

Third, two strong Democrats bowed out of key races that their party had targeted in Louisiana and Florida, dooming hopes of picking up those seats.

Another big factor working against the Democrats this year is that there are relatively few open seats at stake and even fewer incumbents whose seats are in any danger.

This month's bipartisan Battleground poll showed the GOP moving within one point of the Democrats in a generic ballot test. A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll showed the GOP leading the Democrats 48 percent to 43 percent.

Mr. Davis remains cautiously optimistic in his public remarks. "We've got a 6-point lead midway in the third quarter, but we have to hold it. We've got a long way to go," he told me.

But behind closed doors, Mr. Davis tells House Republicans that their biggest enemy is overconfidence, and that they had better run hard and run scared or they can kiss their majority goodbye. The Democrats "are measuring the drapes in your office," he tells them.

Mr. Davis has long maintained that a strong Republican presidential nominee would make a crucial difference in November. But with George W. Bush and Al Gore running nearly neck and neck right now, talk of any coattail effect has been abandoned.

"Bush may very well have coattails, but we're telling our members 'don't count on it; run your own races,' " Mr. Davis said.

The closeness of the House battle also raises the prospect of both parties demanding recounts in key, close races and looking for defectors to switch parties. "It may come down to that," says one House GOP official. "We may not know who controls the House for several days after the vote."

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