Frightful Possibilities

Want to hear a scary tale for Halloween?

Tradition holds that campaigns end on Election Day. But two years ago, of course, no one knew who would become president for another five weeks. Well, guess what? Something similar could happen in this year's midterm.

Politically, it's still November 7, 2000: The two parties remain in stalemate. Control of both the House and Senate may not be decided until well after November 5, 2002.

Consider Louisiana. The November 5 Senate election there is a primary. If no candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote, the two top finishers will face each other in a runoff on December 7. Republicans are fielding three major candidates on November 5 to try to hold Democratic incumbent Mary L. Landrieu below 50 percent and force her into a runoff.

Imagine if control of the Senate hinged on the outcome of a December contest in Louisiana. Under the new campaign finance law, the national parties have to spend all of their soft money before the end of this year. So the incentive to spend it all on a decisive Louisiana race would be overwhelming.

The same thing could happen in Georgia. Democratic Sen. Max Cleland is the favorite in his bid for re-election. But it's conceivable that Republican Saxby Chambliss and third-party candidates could keep Cleland below 45 percent. Under Georgia law, that would trigger a runoff and stretch out the election.

In Oregon, all ballots are cast by mail. They can be postmarked as late as Election Day. If the Senate race between GOP incumbent Gordon H. Smith and Democrat Bill Bradbury is close, Oregon could be counting last-minute ballots long after November 5.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg describes what could happen if key Senate contests go down to the wire: "Once again, you would have lawyers and lobbyists and political insiders in South Dakota, Minnesota, maybe even Colorado, talking about spoiled ballots and legal challenges. Control of the Senate could hang in the balance for days or weeks."

In Missouri this year, voters are casting ballots in a special election to fill the remainder of the Senate term won by the late Mel Carnahan in 2000. Suppose Democrats hold on to their one-vote majority in the Senate, but Republican challenger Jim Talent defeats Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan, who was appointed to take her husband's seat. Talent would become senator as soon as the vote was certified.

That result would give Republicans a temporary Senate majority during this year's lame-duck session. They might try to seize the fleeting opportunity of unified GOP control to pass the president's budget and push through his judicial nominees. Democrats might respond by refusing to pass a rules change that would turn over control of key Senate committees to the GOP.

Not scary enough? The contest for control of the House could also go on and on. Again, it could come down to Louisiana—most likely the 5th District, where an open seat is being sought by seven candidates. If no one gets 50 percent, the contest will be decided by a December 7 runoff.

In fact, the fight for control of the House could go as late as January 4, 2003. Democratic Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii died in September, too late for election officials to remove her name from the ballot. If, as expected, Mink wins posthumously on November 5, Hawaii will hold a special election on January 4 to choose her successor for the new Congress.

Remember former Democratic Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. of Ohio, who was expelled from the House? He's running for his old seat as an independent. Suppose Traficant won. He's in prison, so the House would probably declare his seat vacant, necessitating a special election. A Traficant endorsement—from the Big House!—could determine the winner and end up deciding which party would control the House of Representatives.

Here's another possible twist. As Rothenberg notes, "If the House ended up hanging by one seat, you can bet both parties would be looking for any possible switchers they could find. They'd be working overtime."

One possible switcher is Democratic Rep. Ralph M. Hall of Texas. Hall has said that if his vote would determine who the next speaker of the House would be, he would vote for "the more conservative contender." Presumably, that would be Speaker L. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. Democrats could try to keep Hall in line—and gain majority control-by nominating a conservative Democrat to be speaker instead of Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. Alternatively, Democrats might try to get liberal Republican Constance A. Morella to switch sides if she's re-elected by a narrow margin in Maryland.

What if Republicans end up with a one-seat majority in the Senate? Democrats might try to persuade Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee, R-R.I., to follow in the footsteps of James M. Jeffords of Vermont to their side of the aisle. Chafee was the only Republican senator who voted against the Iraq war resolution. Would Chafee leave the GOP? "That's a decision that I'd really find very difficult to make," he has said. "Very, very difficult. I've been a Republican a long time."

Does all this sound far-fetched? So did the Florida recount.