AMERICAN ELECTION: Public places faith in Congress incumbents

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The Independent Online
In the end, it was a celebration of incumbency. After ousting a sitting President in 1992 and giving Newt Gingrich his "revolution" in 1994, America's voters this year endorsed the status quo, not only the White House but in both chambers of Congress, successfully defended by the Republicans for the first time in almost 70 years.

Just as a solid economy was the key to President Clinton's victory, so reasonable public contentment with a fairly productive Congress was the main reason why in the 34 Senate races of 1996, only one incumbent was defeated - and on the House side, why the vast majority of conservative, and supposedly highly vulnerable, Re- publican freshmen will return to take their seats in the 105th Congress in January.

With just one razor-close contest in Oregon to be declared, the Republicans actually made a net gain of two in the Senate. And if, as expected, the Oregon seat falls its way, the party will have a majority of 55 to 45; short of the 60 votes required to break filibusters, but enough to ensure Republican control of key committees.

In the House, final results may not come until run-off elections next month in half a dozen Texas districts. But the Republicans have already secured 221 seats, three more than the overall majority of 218. With 12 seats undecided, the best Democrats can hope is to reduce the Republican margin from 36 in the previous Congress to between 15 and 20.

In both chambers, however, the pattern reflected the great shift in the American political map of the last two decades, a growing Republican strength in the south that made up for setbacks elsewhere. On Tuesday, the party picked up two of four open Democratic Senate seats in the South, and enough Democratic House seats in the region to offset losses in the North-east, the Mid-west and California.

Whether by accident or design, the voters have ordered up another two years of divided government. Indeed, after the budget row which produced two shutdowns of the federal government last winter, the last phase of the 104th Congress was especially fruitful, delivering welfare and healthcare reform, and the biggest overhaul of media and telecommunications regulations in half a century. The electorate now demands more of the same from the White House and Capitol Hill.

The only sitting Senator to be toppled was the Republican Larry Pressler in South Dakota. Every other grandee survived - from John Kerry who secured a solid 53-44 win over Massachusetts Governor, William Weld, to 75-year- old Jesse Helms in North Carolina, who for the second successive time beat Harvey Gantt, the black former mayor of Charlotte.

In South Carolina, the 93-year-old Strom Thurmond - who ran for President on the segregationist States Rights ticket in 1948 - was easily re-elected to an eighth term, while in the New Jersey seat vacated by Bill Bradley, Democrat Bob Torricelli defeated Richard Zimmer in a $20m mudfight featuring the nastiest negative advertising of Campaign 96.

The outcome is also a small consolation for Bob Dole. His Presidential ambitions plainly doomed for months, he none the less hurled himself into a last-minute campaigning frenzy that might have broken a man half his age. It did not save him, but won enough votes to save the Republican Congress.

How Congress is changing

SENATE

Dem Rep Other

Won 13 20 0

Leading 0 1 0

Holdover 32 34 0

- - -

Trend 45 55 0

Current 47 53 0

Net Change -2 +2 0

HOUSE

Dem Rep Other

Won 200 222 0

Leading 8 3 0

- - -

Trend 208 225 0

Current 198 236 1

Net Change +10 -10 0

NOTE: The trend line gives the anticipated new party division, calculated by adding the number of races which each party has won or is leading.

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