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U.S.: Candidate's Death Highlights Fight For Control Of Congress

  • Andrew Tully

The death of a prominent U.S. senator just days before the 5 November elections underscores the stakes in this year's congressional vote. The showing by the successor to the late Paul Wellstone may well decide whether Democrats maintain their narrow majority in the Senate. Similarly, the rival Republican Party holds a slim majority in the House of Representatives.

Washington, 29 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The death last week of U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota has left that state's Democratic Party without a Senate candidate, just days before congressional elections.

Even as they mourn Wellstone's death, Minnesota Democrats are working to replace him on the ballot. Tomorrow they are expected to name Walter Mondale, who was vice president under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981. Before that, Mondale served two six-year terms in the U.S. Senate.

Another state, New Jersey, also lost its incumbent Democratic senator shortly before the elections. He is Robert Torricelli, who withdrew four weeks ago. Polls showed that because of ethics problems, Torricelli probably would have lost to his challenger from the rival Republican Party, Douglas Forrester.

The New Jersey Democratic Party quickly substituted another former senator, Frank Lautenberg, on the ballot, overcoming a court challenge by the Republicans.

Wellstone's death on 25 October and Torricelli's withdrawal from the campaign have attracted the country's attention because the Democrats hold an extremely slim majority in the Senate and the Republicans have a similarly narrow majority in the House of Representatives.

The 100-seat Senate now has 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and one independent who usually votes with the Democrats. Thirty-three of the Senate seats will be contested at the 5 November elections. If the Democrats lose just one Senate seat to a Republican, control of the party would be reversed, because Vice President Dick Cheney, a Republican, also serves as president of the Senate and is empowered to break any tie votes.

The House of Representatives, with 435 seats, has 222 Republicans, 211 Democrats, and two independents. Because of the 11-seat difference between the Republicans and Democrats in the House, a net gain of six seats by the Democrats would give them control of that chamber of Congress. All House seats are contested every two years.

President George W. Bush, a Republican, has campaigned for many of his party's congressional candidates. He has said repeatedly that he wants Republicans to control both houses to give him the support he needs to fight the war on terrorism, to force Iraq to give up its weapons of mass destruction, and to restore vitality to the weakening U.S. economy.

In Minnesota, Wellstone was thought to be facing a serious challenge from Norman Coleman, a former mayor of the city of St. Paul, the state capital. However, the most recent polls before Wellstone's death showed he had a slight lead over Coleman.

Many political observers say that if the Democrats choose the elderly Mondale to replace Wellstone, Mondale will defeat Coleman. First, they argue, Mondale has the respect of many Minnesotans, and he has a nationwide reputation. Besides, they say, many may vote for the Democrat out of sympathy for the late Wellstone, who was a protege of Mondale's.

In New Jersey, Lautenberg is also well-known, though he lacks the national recognition that Mondale enjoys. Still, he is popular in the state and has dramatically changed the dynamic of New Jersey's Senate race. Polls now show the Republican Forrester tied with Lautenberg. Forrester once led Torricelli by a comfortable margin.

Political analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say the citizens of both Minnesota and New Jersey have been cheated by the last-minute changes of candidacy. But they stress that the two situations are very different.

Bill Frenzel, a former Republican member of the House of Representatives from Minnesota, said there is little the Democratic Party can do but find the most attractive candidate available to stand in for Wellstone. But he said it is regrettable that the voters will have no influence on the choice as they would have had in a primary election. "When deaths occur, there isn't anything you can do about it. The party insiders have a chance to nominate a person to take the place of their fallen hero. And Minnesotans will have to vote, on very short notice, without having what you might call a proper campaign. That's unfortunate, but I don't see how it can be avoided," Frenzel said.

Larry Sabato agrees. He is a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Sabato said self-preservation dictates that the Democratic Party in Minnesota choose a candidate of Mondale's stature to carry on for Wellstone. "It's essential for the party that has lost the candidate to choose someone who's already generally well-known and prestigious. That's why the Minnesota Democratic Party seems intent on recruiting former Vice President Walter Mondale. His views are a matter of public record, and people in Minnesota already know who he is," Sabato said.

But both men say the situation in New Jersey is another matter altogether. They say the leaders of that state's Democratic Party did not face a true emergency. They simply made a cynical move to replace the incumbent, Torricelli, once it became clear that he could not overcome the history of his own poor ethical judgment.

In this case, according to Frenzel, the people of New Jersey have a right to feel cheated. "The emergency in New Jersey was simply that a [candidate] was tarnished, and the party exercised every means at its disposal to make him resign as a candidate. The party was able to push its new candidate on the ballot, and I think the public has every reason to complain in New Jersey that it has been denied its opportunity to nominate the candidate," Frenzel said.

Sabato added: "No one respects what happened in New Jersey. Everyone understands what is happening in Minnesota."

It will not be known until tomorrow whether the Democratic Party's Minnesota chapter will offer the Senate candidacy to Mondale, or whether Mondale will accept it.