By DAVID ESPO
WASHINGTON – Republicans stepped to the brink of victory early today in a costly, coast-to-coast battle for renewed control of the House. The GOP picked up six Democratic seats in scattered states, but gave five back.
“We’re looking pretty good,” said Speaker Dennis Hastert, hoping for two more years of GOP control.
On a night extremely kind to incumbents, only one lawmaker was denied a new term – Rep. Sam Gejdenson lost his bid for an 11th term from Connecticut.
First-term Democrat Rush Holt of New Jersey survived a near-death political experience – at least for the time being – appearing to lose his race, then pulling narrowly ahead when additional votes were unexpectedly reported.
Republicans also won Democratic open seats in Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, Missouri and West Virginia.
Voter News Service projected Republicans would retain control, based on interviews with voters as they left the polls across the country.
Well after 2 a.m. in the East, the national trend showed Republicans had won 216 seats and were leading for 5 more, with 218 required to seal control. Democrats had won 201 seats, and were leading for 11 more.
Democrats needed to gain eight seats to guarantee a majority in the House that convenes in January.
Republicans had won six seats formerly held by Democrats, and were leading for one more.
Democrats had won five seats formerly in GOP hands, and were leading for five more.
A Republican victory would mean a new term as speaker for Hastert of Illinois, re-elected easily to an eighth term in the House. The Democratic leader, Dick Gephardt of Missouri, won his 13th term.
Retirements brought new blood into the House.
Former University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne easily held an open seat for the Republicans with 82 percent of the vote – a rout not unlike some that his teams administered on the gridiron.
All 435 House seats were on the ballot, but the two sides focused on 40 or so highly competitive races likely to determine which party would hold power alongside a new president.
In Oklahoma, Democrat Brad Carson claimed an open seat that Republicans had won in their 1994 landslide. The incumbent, Rep. Tom Coburn, retired after adhering to a self-imposed limit of three terms. Democrats found success in an open Long Island seat, winning a complicated five-way race, and in another in Utah. They also won two Republican open seats in California.
But Republicans took away a seat in Pennsylvania, where a veteran Democrat opted for an ultimately unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat; and another in New York, claiming the seat held by Rep. Michael Forbes, a Republican-turned Democrat. In Virginia, the GOP also won a seat vacated by veteran Democrat Owen Pickett.
The GOP also won a Democratic open seat in Missouri, and narrowly held onto a seat vacated by a veteran Republican lawmaker in Florida who unsuccessfully sought a Senate seat.
In polling place interviews during the day, a majority of voters said government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. Voters who felt that way favored Republican candidates for the House. Those who thought government should do more to solve problems sided with Democrats.
The poll, conducted by Voter News Service, found that Republicans fared best among voters who listed taxes as the most important issue. Democrats led among voters who named Medicare, prescription drugs, the economy and jobs, education and Social Security. VNS is a consortium of the Associated Press and the television networks.
The most closely watched contests were in all regions. California, the most populous state, had five competitive seats, and offered Democrats the prospects of several gains.
In the first hotly contested races settled, Republican Reps. Anne Northup, Ernest Fletcher and Ed Whitfield in Kentucky won new terms, overcoming costly Democratic challenges and benefiting from a strong statewide showing by George W. Bush. President Clinton campaigned for Northup’s opponent last weekend as Democrats sought to take away her seat.
Dozens of incumbents in each party were coasting to new terms by lopsided margins. In Virginia’s northern suburbs, Democratic Rep. Jim Moran and Republican Rep. Tom Davis were coasting to re-election with roughly two-thirds of the vote – in adjoining districts.
Much of the action revolved around open seats, the 26 districts where Republican incumbents were not on the ballot and nine where Democrats were not.
As the polls closed on the costliest campaign in history, Democrats needed to pick up eight seats to regain the control they lost in the GOP landslide of 1994.
The expiring House includes 222 Republicans, 209 Democrats, two independents, one siding with each party, and two vacancies, also split between the parties. One Democrat. Rep. Jim Traficant, has said he will support a Republican for speaker.
The election marked the end of a campaign that made million-dollar House races commonplace. Candidates raised record amounts of money, none more than in California’s 27th District, where GOP Rep. Jim Rogan and Democratic challenger Adam Schiff spent more than $9 million between them.
But it didn’t stop there.
The political parties lavished tens of millions of dollars on television advertising in a few dozen targeted races. So, too, the special interests – the unions, pharmaceutical companies and others that dropped millions more on commercials designed to sway the voters.
For the first time in years, Democrats were able to compete financially with the GOP. In district after district, they used their money to accuse Republicans of working side-by-side with special interests to thwart a patients’ bill of rights, prescription drugs for Medicare, campaign finance overhaul and other legislation while pushing a tax cut designed principally to benefit the wealthy.
Republicans disputed those Democratic assertions, stressing instead that under their congressional leadership the national debt was being paid down at long last, the Social Security trust fund was off-limits to routine federal spending programs and more money was being diverted to defense. In the final months of the congressional session, they repackaged their tax cuts into smaller, more appetizing portions and watched – contentedly – as President Clinton vetoed them anyway.
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.