Washington, 30 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- On November 3, American voters will elect the 106th U.S. Congress, governors for 36 of the 50 states, legislatures in 46 states and in 24 states voters will make choices on ballot questions ranging from abortion rights to tax reform.
These are the mid-term elections, so named because they come at the mid point of each four-year presidential term. There are two dominant political parties in the U.S., the Republicans and the Democrats. Currently, the Republican Party holds the majority in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. There are more Republican governors than there are Democrats and both parties control about an equal number of state legislatures.
Even though he is not running, the elections are also being viewed as a national vote on President Bill Clinton. The president, a Democrat, has been campaigning hard for Congressional and other candidates from his own party. The vote results will demonstrate how effective Clinton remains as a political party leader.
Experts will also be looking closely at the effect that Clinton's legal troubles have on the outcome. Just before it adjourned for good, the House of Representatives in the 105th Congress voted to approve a formal inquiry on whether Clinton should be impeached by the House and possibly brought to trial in the Senate. The charges stem from accusations that Clinton lied while under legal oath about his relationship with a woman named Monica Lewinsky.
It isn't just Clinton who will be under scrutiny. Public opinion polls consistently have shown that a sizable segment of the American electorate may not approve of Clinton's behavior but also does not believe that he has committed impeachable offenses. The answers to these and other questions will come in the days immediately after the first Tuesday in November. For now, here is a brief look at what is at stake in the 1998 mid term elections:
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES - The U.S. Constitution sets the term of office for members of the House at two years. There are currently 435 seats in the House and all are up for election. The number of seats that each state has is determined by population. California, the most populous state, has the most House members with 54. The least populated states -- Delaware, Montana, North and South Dakota and Wyoming -- each have only one House member. A House member represents about 600,000 people in a district.
After four decades in the minority, the Republican Party took control of the House in the midterm election of 1994. The Republicans now hold 228 House seats to 206 for the Democrats. There is one independent member who usually votes democratic.
Republicans are expected to maintain their majority. Whether they increase it is open to question. Political commentators report that there are only 50 to 75 races that are considered competitive -- races that could go to either party -- this year.
SENATE - There are 100 members of the Senate. Every state, regardless of size, is guaranteed two senators. Senators serve six year terms, but the terms are staggered so that only about one third of the senate seats are up for election every two years. This year, 34 seats are at stake. The Republicans also control the Senate by 55 seats to 45 for the Democrats.
No one is predicting a power shift in the Senate. The Republican goal is to increase the majority to 60 seats. This would enable the Republicans, in theory, to block open-ended debates on legislation. Thirteen of the Senate races are described as competitive.
GOVERNORS - Voters in 36 of the 50 states will be electing governors this year. Governors do not make policy at the federal level, but they can influence it, particularly if they are strong personalities from wealthy or populous states.
It's always beneficial for the national political party to have one of its members in the state governor's mansion as well. In this election, seats held by 24 Republicans, 11 Democrats and one Independent (the northeastern state of Maine) are at stake.
In addition, there are governors' races in the five most populous states -- California, New York, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania. Races in 11 states are considered open, which means that the incumbent is not running this year. Predictions call for the Republican Party to maintain its lead in the states and possibly add one or two more governors to its total. There are currently 32 Republican governors, 17 Democrats and one Independent.
There are elections for legislatures in 46 of the 50 states. Every state except Nebraska, which has one chamber, has a bi-cameral legislature. All 46 of these states will be voting for lower chamber, or state house members, but only 17 states will choose state senators as well. The Republican Party holds the majority in both chambers in 19 states while Democrats control both chambers in 20 states. Ten states have split control between the two parties.
There is no provision in the U.S. Constitution for a national referendum. However, 24 states permit some form of direct democracy, when voters decide an issue for themselves or mandate that the state legislature solve a problem. Frequently, questions placed on a state ballot by citizens' groups deal with issues of taxation, but they also address social questions. This year, the Pacific Northwest state of Oregon has the most ballot questions with 14.
(Another in RFE/RL's series previewing 1998 general election in US)