Waiting for the other shoe Featured

10:05am EDT July 22, 2002

The smart betting among Washington pundits is that the 1998 congressional election cycle will be a "status quo" year with little change in the balance of power between majority Republicans and anxious Democrats. But if the economy, foreign affairs or President Clinton's personal crises intervene, these same observers agree, then all bets are off.

"Everyone is expecting a very low [voter] turnout," says Charlie Cook, Washington, D.C., political consultant and publisher of The Cook Report. "Now, the Republicans are saying that the Democratic voters are feeling disillusioned and won't turn out, and the Democrats are saying the Republicans are feeling disillusioned. And the fact is, they're both right." Cook predicts a 97 to 99 percent re-election rate for incumbents: "Neither side is going to pick up more than four or five seats."

Cook and others credit the healthy economy, the absence of major foreign crises and the President's Teflon poll numbers for most of the ho-hum reaction to most of this year's congressional races. Public-opinion polls rate education, the future of Social Security and crime as the major concerns of average voters, according to Tom Silver, publisher of The Polling Report, a biweekly newsletter on national issues and trends. "I'm not sure ... that any single issue can be called a deciding issue right now," Silver says.

Pro-business activists hope that taxes will become the deciding issue driving their constituencies to the polls in November. The National Federation of Independent Business has so far gathered 800,000 signatures for its "Scrap the Code" campaign to ditch the current system. Kelley Rogers, the federation's national field director for grassroots political activity, calls the campaign "extremely successful," though the nation's largest small-business group missed a self-imposed June deadline for gathering 1 million signatures.

Even elected officials not usually identified with the federation's positions have shown up in favor of tax- reform measures: Sens. Carol Mosely-Braun (D-Ill.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) broke a late-July tie vote over tax reform, "and that really shows you the power of the issue," Rogers says. That didn't prevent the federation from endorsing Mosely-Braun's GOP challenger Peter Fitzgerald and Reid's opponent Rep. John Ensign (R-Nev.) in the general election this fall.

National Small Business United, with 65,000 members across the country, has gone from scrapping the code to endorsing a replacement. Todd McCracken, the group's president, says the group recently endorsed what it calls the "fair tax," an approximately 23 percent national sales tax rate to replace income, estate and FICA payroll taxes all at the same time. The small-business group didn't endorse the federation's "Scrap the Code" campaign, McCracken says, because it would be "irresponsible" to abolish the tax system without having a replacement ready. Still, McCracken says NSBU may approach the federation and other groups to push the "fair tax" in Congress during the next session.

Small-business interests to date haven't played the same pivotal role they did in the 1994, and to a lesser extent the 1996, election cycles, says Ron Faucheux, editor and publisher of Campaigns & Elections magazine. "I actually find that somewhat surprising," Faucheux says, considering "small business is the most popular aspect of the free enterprise system from a political point of view." The major political parties need to advocate positive change to galvanize entrepreneurial constituents, he says, rather than campaigning on their opponents' weaknesses.

The GOP could still blow its majority in Congress, Faucheux says, if it relies too heavily on Clinton's alleged peccadilloes to shore up its support. Silver observes: "If there had been Republican hopes that the White House scandal was going to erode [Clinton's] popularity, they haven't been fulfilled." Or Democrats could get sandbagged by the Clinton scandals and a sudden economic reversal spawned in Asia. "It would take an unusual mix of events to have that effect," Faucheux says, "and of course time is running short. But it could still happen."