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  •   Parties Look to House Races for Gains

    Charts: Open Opportunities
    By Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, October 25, 1998; Page A20

    The clues to President Clinton's impeachment prospects lie not only in the offices of Kenneth W. Starr and Newt Gingrich, but in places like Pennsylvania's Lackawanna County, where two political newcomers are battling over a job opening in Congress.

    In one of the closest contests this year, the outcome of the race between Republican Don Sherwood and Democrat Pat Casey will reverberate far beyond the Scranton-area district each hopes to represent.

    Although Republican control of the House does not appear in jeopardy, even slight shifts in the numbers have taken on added significance as the next Congress weighs the fate of Clinton and as both sides begin to position for the 2000 presidential campaign.

    And it is in the races for open seats – many of them in suburban districts that Clinton won in 1996 – where both sides aim to make their greatest gains.

    "So much of what will happen will be influenced by the way the results of the election are read," said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. "If they're read as a great endorsement for the president and the status quo, it will be a disincentive to impeach him."

    History would suggest that Democrats are in for an electoral beating Nov. 3. Since World War II, the party controlling the White House has lost an average of 27 House seats in midterm elections.

    "If there are fewer than a dozen seats [lost to the GOP], it would be regarded as a good sign for the president," Kohut said.

    The strong economy is good news for incumbents of every stripe, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "The politics of resentment and deprivation are more of a spur than contentment."

    As a result, the electoral playing field is relatively small this year – 94 House incumbents do not face major-party opposition. There are about 50 truly competitive races today, compared to an average of 100 in more traditional campaign years.

    In the past three elections, noted Mark Gersh, a consultant to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the relatively small number of races with no incumbent running – an average of 15 percent of all House contests – produced nearly half of the swing from one party to the other. "That tells you that's where the action is," he said.

    This year, newcomers are competing for 33 open House seats. Some, such as the race to replace Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy (D-Mass.), hold little suspense because one party is so dominant in a particular region. But about 20 are true contests, many of them too close to call.

    What is noteworthy about this year's crop of open seat candidates is the large number of well-financed moderates. Whether it is antiabortion, tough-on-criminals Democrat Ken Lucas in Kentucky's 4th District or abortion-rights Republican Doug Ose in California's 3rd, some of the hottest prospects in both parties are centrists.

    The prevalence of viable centrists "fits with the don't-rock-the-boat mood," of the electorate at large, Kohut said. But if they win, neither the liberals nor the conservatives are likely to take solace.

    Take for instance Steve Kuykendall, the Republican state assemblyman mounting an aggressive campaign to take back the Los Angeles-based district of retiring Democratic Rep. Jane Harman. A former mayor who touts his efforts to reduce class sizes, Kuykendall would hardly be a reliable party-line vote if he wins the seat, splitting with Republican leaders on hot-button issues such as abortion and gun control.

    Similarly, Bob Greenlee, the Republican mayor of Boulder who supports abortion rights and advertises himself as a friend of the environment, is in strong contention in Colorado's 2nd District, which has been held by a Democrat and which Clinton won handily in both elections. "If you're going to nominate a Republican in this district, I can't imagine anyone else," said Colorado media pollster Floyd Ciruli.

    Bernadette Budde, senior vice president of the Business Industry Political Action Committee, describes the open seat races as "test labs. . . . They decide what is going to work in the future."

    So in Oregon's 1st District, where liberal Rep. Elizabeth Furse (D) is retiring, Republicans are attempting to present Molly Bordonaro as a moderate more in line with the high-tech suburbanites who gave Clinton large victories here.

    On issues such as abortion and school vouchers, "Bordonaro has positions virtually identical to those of [conservative] Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.)," said Bill Lunch, a political scientist at Oregon State University. "But she's much more clever about the way she's presenting herself."

    If Bordonaro defeats Democrat David Wu "it will prove the right repackaged candidate can do well in the suburbs even if he or she is pro-life and comes out of the conservative wing of the party," Lunch said.

    Democrats, on the other hand, are testing the notion that their party is all but dead in the South. Victories by conservatives such as Ronnie Shows in Mississippi's 4th District or Lucas in the race for GOP Rep. Jim Bunning's Kentucky seat may provide a road map for ending Republican hegemony in the region.

    Democratic recruiters have latched onto a handful of famous political offspring this year. They include Janice Hahn, daughter of the late Los Angeles supervisor Kenny Hahn; Majorie McKeithen, the daughter of Louisiana's Republican Secretary of State Fox McKeithen and granddaughter of the late governor John McKeithen; two Udall cousins, Mark (son of former Arizona representative Morris K. Udall) and Tom (son of former interior secretary Stewart L. Udall), running in Colorado and New Mexico respectively; and Casey, the 32-year-old son of former Pennsylvania governor Robert P. Casey.

    The upcoming impeachment hearings have hardly been a significant theme in most of the congressional campaigns around the country – that is particularly true in the open seat races. Republican consultant Ed Gillespie said non-incumbents are best off staying away from the presidential controversy. "If either side tries to take the offensive on that front they probably end up alienating swing voters," he said.

    Simon Rosenberg, head of the mainstream New Democrat Network, said the scandal may have the greatest impact on party loyalists. "It's possible we'll find out in the final weeks of this campaign that the Clinton thing hurt us in conservative districts and helped us in more progressive coastal districts."

    In a region once known as the "anthracite capital of the world," the Casey-Sherwood matchup to replace Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Joseph M. McDade (R) is a fall classic.

    Seizing upon an opening that hasn't existed in 36 years, both parties have invested heavily in the contest. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) recruited Casey and in two separate events helped raise $120,000 for the campaign.

    The cash-rich GOP, meanwhile, has aired two commercials on Sherwood's behalf. House Speaker Gingrich (R-Ga.) recently raised $75,000 for Sherwood, a wealthy car dealer who has mocked Casey's youth. And in a district accustomed to more than its share of pork, Gingrich promised something even more valuable: a seat on the Appropriations Committee.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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