By Paul A. Anthony, Editor in Chief
A month from now, America will vote in what could be the closest and most divisive congressional elections in recent history. But votes will decide much more than just the Congressional party divide.
Federal court nominees, the economy, Social Security’s future and even the makeup of the Supreme Court all could be affected when the dust from these elections settles.
“This is one of the most important off-year elections that I can remember in ages,” said Dr. Mel Hailey, chair of the Department of Political Science. “You’ve got a Congress that is very, very, very evenly divided.”
Only one seat separates the majority Democrats from the minority Republicans in the Senate, and Republicans hold a six-seat majority in the House of Representatives. With both houses already so evenly split, every race counts, and that includes the highly charged and highly negative Texas Senate race between former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk (D) and state attorney general John Cornyn (R).
“It’s going to come down to just a few swing districts,” Hailey said. “But you never can tell whatever happens in October that may shift public opinion one way or the other.”
The atmosphere has created tension nationwide as candidates began gearing up for these elections earlier than normal.
The attacks got ugly last week as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) angrily attacked Republican President George W. Bush from the Senate floor, accusing him of politicizing a potential conflict with Iraq.
Americans identify with Republicans more easily on issues of national security, polls have found, and the recent focus on Iraq has many of Democrats afraid it may overshadow their strong points, such as the economy, Social Security and prescription drugs.
“The Democrats are wanting to get a resolution on Iraq passed quickly to get it off the front burner,” Hailey said.
The Washington Post reported Monday that Republicans are now favored to keep control of the House and have improved their chances to gain back the Senate.
The GOP lost control of the Senate when James Jeffords (I-Vt.) left the party to become an independent. His switch shoved the Senate from a 50-50 split with a Republican tiebreaker in Vice President Dick Cheney to a Democratic plurality of 50-49-1.
Since then, Democrats have controlled the Senate agenda, killing two conservative Bush circuit court nominees in committee and giving Daschle a national platform, which he has used to rail against Bush’s economic proposals.
In the House, which Republicans have controlled since their shocking sweep into power in 1994, the GOP has passed several Bush-backed bills regarding tax cuts and abortion. But more often than not, both houses have been stymied by legislative gridlock produced by the lack of a clear majority on either side.
Two different visions
Depending on how the 2002 elections go, the nation could see drastically different sides of the political spectrum.
If Republicans keep control of the House and regain the Senate, a number of conservative initiatives could be swept into law, including those making Bush’s large tax cuts permanent, approving his energy policy and approving a smaller health care initiative.
If Democrats push the Republicans out of the House and enlarge their majority in the Senate, Bush could have a difficult two years before he runs for reelection in 2004. Democrats will probably block his nominees, stymie his economic proposals and push for larger Social Security and prescription drug reform measures.
Supreme Court politics
And a largely forgotten issue, the Supreme Court, could come into play.
Conservative chief justice William Rehnquist wants to retire under a Republican president, but Bush could have trouble replacing him with an equally conservative chief justice if Democrats control the Senate. And Rehnquist isn’t the only right-of-center justice to be contemplating retirement. Sandra Day O’Connor may also retire.
“There’s a whole different dynamic involved with a Supreme Court nominee,” Hailey said. If Democrats control the Senate, “it’ll be an old-fashioned donnybrook.”
With so much at stake, the parties are throwing millions of dollars at high-profile races nationwide, especially in the Senate, where up to a dozen races are considered toss-ups right now.
Among those is the Texas race to replace Republican Phil Gramm. Kirk and Cornyn have deluged Texas airwaves with negative campaigns, pumping $12 million worth of advertising into the Dallas market alone.
Democrats across the country hope to embarrass Bush by taking a Republican seat in his home state. Republicans also harbor such hopes: Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson is in a tight race in South Dakota, where Daschle is the other senator.
As the national agenda has turned to Iraq, signs have been favorable for the GOP. Several Republican candidates are running against liberal Democrats who voted against the Gulf War resolution in 1991.
But should a resolution be passed and the national consciousness turn toward economic concerns, Republicans could fall victim to a sluggish economy, business scandals and questions about health care and Social Security reform.
In Texas, this especially concerns Republicans Cornyn and gubernatorial incumbent Rick Perry, who replaced Bush as governor when Bush was elected president.
The Enron collapse highlighted a statewide economic downturn that has been even slower to recover than the national economy.
An insurance crisis years in the making recently exploded, leaving millions with exorbitant premiums or no insurance altogether. The state’s jobless rate is not encouraging, and a number of companies recently laid off large numbers of workers.
But none of that may matter if Republicans can steer voters’ minds away from such issues and focus on national security and portray Democrats as slow to react to homeland security issues.
Even if who will come away victorious is a mystery, one thing about the 2002 elections is clear: no one will be going to bed early on Election Night, Nov. 5.