- The Washington Times - Monday, November 4, 2002

In this unusual election year filled with twists, turns and tragedies rarely have voters been so closely divided in so many midterm congressional elections. Then again, the stakes have rarely been so great. Just a single race could shift the balance of power in the Senate and change the political landscape for years to come.
Political pros who study and crunch the numbers, including senior White House strategists, say that control of the Senate may turn on as few as 25,000 votes across the country out of tens of millions cast.
It is hard to remember when the election battles have been pushed into the background so frequently because television was so focused on other, far-more-compelling matters terrorism, war in Iraq, a House and Senate resolution to approve such a war, and a crazed sniper who went on a killing spree that dominated the news coming out of the nation's capital.
The most surprising factor in this interminable election cycle has been the absence of a compelling national issue. Democrats tried to jumpstart one, but came up short. They flogged the corporate accounting scandals, the budget deficits, the plunging stock market, social security reform and a lackluster economy. Yet, none seemed to have any national political traction.
And then there is the intensity factor. Both parties are working hard to turn out their base tomorrow, but there hasn't been a hot-button issue getting voters excited. Republicans tend feel more intensely about voting in this election. Democrats, too, though there were signs that turnout of their critical black voter base could be disappointing (outside of Florida).
A poll released last week by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on the black population, found that only 63 percent of black voters now identify themselves as Democrats. Two years ago, 74 percent did so.
In a survey of 1,647 black adults, 10 percent or so identify themselves as Republicans, up from 4 percent two years ago. More blacks, especially younger ones, call themselves independent. This is bad news for the future of the Democratic Party, which has relied increasingly on the black vote to put it in power.
There is more internal division in the Democratic Party's base than the media have been willing to report. Many Democrats are angry with House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle for supporting President Bush on the war resolution, and may stay home because of it.
The lack of any kind of clear domestic agenda for their party has stoked even more resentment. There are growing complaints in the party's liberal wing that Democratic leaders have been playing me-too politics, watering down what Democrats once stood for and caving in to the White House once too many times on trade, taxes, defense spending, education, and of course, on Iraq.
Some major social and demographic trends are at work in this country that are slowly, but surely, changing the political power structure in national elections. The rise of the investor class is the most dominant one. As more and more voters have an increasing economic stake in our country, more of them will want to make sure that their stake is not eaten up by higher taxes.
The quiet but continuing migration from the cities to the suburbs, most especially among minorities, is affecting politics, too. The continuing rise in homeownership has fueled increasing opposition to higher property and sales taxes and, by extension, federal taxes on income, capital gains, estates and retirement savings.
How will tomorrow's elections turn out? Republicans will take a beating in the governorships in the Midwest (Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin) and in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and possibly Kansas. The GOP will keep the House, consolidating its hold on that chamber. And the Senate? That's anybody's guess.
There are too many close Senate races to make any kind of a call in a contest where the GOP needs a net gain of one seat to take control. Republicans right now have more opportunities to take control than the Democrats do. While the news media have focused on the dramatic turn of events in Minnesota and New Jersey, these are Democratic seats for now, and will likely remain so.
Of more interest are those foundering Senate Democratic incumbents, where the GOP arguably has a much better chances for takeovers. Democratic senators are now trailing in South Dakota, Missouri and Georgia (a sleeper race where Sen. Max Cleland is in danger of losing to Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss).
In Louisiana, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu can't seem to get to 50 percent and may be forced into a runoff in December that will draw huge amounts of money from both parties and could decide who controls the Senate.
Ask Democratic officials to name their best chances for upsets and they say Arkansas, Colorado and New Hampshire, though various polls show Republicans with a slight edge in the last two of these races.
As the election season neared its merciful end, the Democrats seemed to have a steeper hill to climb.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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