Prominent Names Skip Senate Races
By Helen Dewar
Democrats went after two of the biggest Democratic names in Colorado Gov. Roy Romer and Rep. David E. Skaggs to take on Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, anathema to the party since he bolted and became a Republican in 1995. Both declined, leaving Colorado Democrats in the same plight as Illinois Republicans and boosting Campbell's prospects.
So it goes in states from Washington to New Hampshire and South Carolina, where both parties have sought candidates with big names and proven records for winning to take on beatable incumbents in the November midterm elections, only to be refused.
This, coupled with the relatively small number of senators choosing not to seek reelection, holds out the possibility of little change in the Senate's makeup after several years of wrenching change, including loss of some of its most prominent members through retirement and the GOP takeover of both houses in 1994.
Most of the volatility in recent elections came in contests for vacant seats. But this year only five senators have announced their retirement, compared with 13 in 1996 and nine in 1994, and only two of these open seats in Arkansas and Kentucky are highly competitive.
There are more Democratic than Republican seats in serious trouble, but recent polls, including one taken late last month by the Pew Research Center, indicate an overall edge for the Democrats.
As a result, according to many analysts, Republicans, who now control 55 of the 100 Senate seats, no longer have much hope of gaining a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes. And Democrats have little hope of regaining control. Both parties have begun talking about positioning themselves for major change in 2000.
There are lots of reasons for the dearth of prominent challengers this year, including a mellow national mood that helps incumbents and discourages challengers and the mounting psychic and financial costs of undertaking a Senate campaign and career.
With polls showing high popularity ratings for Congress as well as President Clinton, "it's the year of the incumbent," said Michael Tucker, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
"People look at the sacrifices they have to make . . . and so often they just say, 'I'm going to take a bye,' " said Michael Russell, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Or as Skaggs put it when he announced he would retire from Congress rather than run for the Senate: It would take $4 million to $5 million to run a successful campaign in Colorado, and "as I looked down the road I'd have to travel to collect those funds, it was not a pretty sight."
Outsiders emphasize the importance of the national mood and the boost it gives to incumbents.
"Both sides have encountered some recruiting problems, but this is no surprise," said Charles Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report. "The economy is great, the people are satisfied with where the country is and every indicator is that this is a great year for incumbents."
When the country was angry at Washington, as it was in the last couple of election cycles, challengers are motivated to take on potentially vulnerable incumbents, many of whom opted for retirement. But the reverse is true when the country is less aroused about Washington and feels more charitable toward incumbents, as now appears to be the case. "If there were more anti-incumbent feeling, there might be stronger candidates out there," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report.
The encouraging outlook for incumbents was underscored in the Pew Research Center poll, showing that 63 percent of Americans want to see their own representative in Congress reelected, compared with 49 percent during the anti-Washington furor of 1994. As for whether people wanted to see other members of Congress reelected, the figure was lower but still high by comparison with 1994: 45 percent compared with 28 percent.
In addition to Edgar and Romer, this year's roster of won't-runs includes former South Carolina governor Carroll Campbell (R), who turned down a promising race against Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D), and New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, probably the only Granite State Democrat who could unseat Sen. Judd Gregg (R.). Georgia Gov. Zell Miller (D) declined to challenge Sen. Paul Coverdell (R). North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt (D) turned down a chance to go after Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R), even though Faircloth is not among the GOP's strongest incumbents.
In Washington state, two prominent House Republicans Reps. George R. Nethercutt, regarded as a giant-killer since his defeat of then-Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D) in 1994, and Jennifer Dunn, a member of the House GOP leadership walked away from challenging Sen. Patty Murray (D), whom Republicans regard as highly vulnerable.
This is not to say that the parties have not reeled in some of their biggest fish, including former Indiana governor Evan Bayh (D), the presumptive favorite to win the seat of retiring Sen. Dan Coats (R), and Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich (R), a nearly sure-bet to succeed retiring Sen. John Glenn (D). In New York, former vice presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro has joined other locally prominent Democrats in bidding to challenge Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R). Elsewhere, Republicans are pinning hopes for upsets on Rep. John Ensign against Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Mark W. Neumann against Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.).
It is not unusual for parties to be rebuffed by their first choices, especially to take on popular incumbents. Governors, in particular, do not always see the Senate as a career advancement. Nor do they always do well. Witness the failed senatorial campaigns of popular Govs. William F. Weld (R) of Massachusetts and Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska two years ago.
Moreover, the uninterest of big-name challengers does not mean that endangered incumbents, such as Moseley-Braun, Campbell, Hollings and Murray, now have an easy ride to reelection. While they may breathe easier, they are still in varying degrees of trouble.
For instance, Democrats contend that their leading prospect, Dottie Lamm, a longtime Denver Post columnist and wife of former governor Richard D. Lamm (D), will give Campbell a run for his money in Colorado. And in Illinois, Republicans have high hopes for millionaire state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, although Democrats see prospects for a replay of 1996, when voters rejected the Illinois GOP senatorial nominee as too conservative.
But in other states, most incumbents are strongly positioned for reelection, not just because of the pro-incumbent tide that is running this year. For a variety of reasons, including the fact that this particular class of senators has gone through a heavy purging in past elections, it includes some of the Senate's strongest survivors, such as Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), the only Washington-area senator who is up for reelection this year.
Also, both parties have thin bench strength in some states with incumbents who might otherwise be vulnerable, such as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Even in highly competitive California, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) could be in worse trouble with a stronger field arrayed against her.
Of the 29 incumbents seeking reelection, one-third to one-half are generally regarded as sure bets to return next year, and many of the rest face elections that are theirs to lose.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company