GOP Hold on House Hazier
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 1998; Page A01
Midway through the 1998 campaign the Republican Party's fragile, 11-seat hold on the House of Representatives may be in jeopardy, giving Democrats the opportunity to regain some of the ground they lost in the bloodbath of 1994, an examination of polling data, fund-raising and voting trends in competitive districts indicates.
Simply holding their own this year would be a historic feat for the Democrats. Only once since the Civil War has the president's party picked up congressional seats in a midterm election. But Democrats see their prospects enhanced by President Clinton's high popularity ratings, a dearth of legislative activity by the Republican majority and a series of well-publicized rifts in the GOP.
Republican leaders say their bulging bank accounts, popular governors and traditional turnout advantage will keep them in power. But they concede that they have lost ground since late last year, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) predicted he would add 40 members to his GOP team.
"It's going to be a very close election," said Republican consultant Ralph Reed, acknowledging the tension in GOP ranks. "The best case for Republicans is they win 10 seats, worst case we lose the House. We'll probably hold it by plus or minus five seats."
One indication of how Republican optimism has been tempered came two weeks ago when Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.) was enlisted to return to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) to help cheer up the troops with his reliably rosy projections. Paxon, who is retiring at the end of this year, made a name for himself when he helped chart the GOP takeover in 1994.
"I am less nervous today than I was a month ago," Paxon said, pointing to strong nominees chosen in last week's California and Kentucky primaries. However, he acknowledged: "Any time you have an 11-seat majority you are nervous."
Figuring the Spread
"With an 11-seat margin, even a tiny wind, not necessarily a gale force, can make all the difference in the world," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
After 18 primaries, 79 incumbents are unopposed; one incumbent, Rep. Jay Kim (R-Calif.), lost a primary. With a couple hundred incumbents facing token opposition, the playing field quickly shrinks to about 65 competitive races, experts on both sides agree. About 20 of those seats, most occupied by incumbents, probably will not change hands in November, though the contests will be nail-biters.
Voters are "almost inebriated with the good economy," said Democratic strategist Alan Secrest, explaining why the vast majority of incumbents appear secure. As a result, most of the real skirmishes will come in the 33 open seat contests, particularly in the Ohio River Valley and the West Coast. Many analysts concede that Republicans should easily pick up four of those and, if Rep. Wes Watkins (R-Okla.) does not come out of retirement, Democrats have fairly firm bragging rights to five.
Overall, about three dozen races are impossible to gauge today. The outcomes depend on many factors, including primary results and spending by special interests.
"It is an uphill battle for the Democrats to take control of the House," acknowledged Democratic pollster Fred Yang. "But I do think it's a competitive situation."
Both parties dread a downturn in the economy and neither can determine the electoral impact of the ongoing Clinton scandals. Americans have consistently told pollsters they have little interest in the president's personal life, but that could change. Moreover, the recent nuclear testing in Pakistan and India, coupled with allegations that the administration improperly transferred technology to China, could affect voters' choices.
"The big X factor in 1998 is whether a national tide will emerge," said Ornstein.
Without any overriding national themes, most races will come down to local issues such as highway funding or local twists on national issues such as how to make schools safer.
In recent years, the closing weeks of Congress have recast the political landscape. In 1994, for example, the death knell of health care reform and the crime bill fiasco damaged Democrats and paved the way for Republicans to win back the House with a net gain of 54 seats.
Because turnout is key in close off-year races, both parties are targeting their most loyal supporters. Republican leaders are attempting to calm restive conservatives with House votes on school prayer, abortion and the marriage tax penalty. Democrats are trying to exploit GOP divisions on managed care, tobacco and education.
Ed Brookover, political director for the NRCC, said that although most voters are content, about 40 percent are unhappy.
"The unrest has to do with moral leadership," he said, noting that most of those people are Republicans or independents. "And when it comes time to vote in the fall, people tend to turn out more when they are upset about something."
Still, the electoral picture for Republicans appeared far brighter at the start of 1998 when they happily predicted the "six-year itch" the phenomenon in which the party holding the White House for two terms has always lost congressional seats would work to their advantage. In 1986, the itch cost President Ronald Reagan's GOP five seats in the House and eight in the Senate, which returned control to Democrats.
"People began the year with expectations of the six-year itch," said one Republican overseeing election strategy. Then allegations that Clinton had an affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky "propelled dreams of us picking up 30 or 40."
But many observers say the "itch" factor actually penalized Clinton and the Democrats in 1994, when voters rebelled against his seemingly overzealous liberal agenda. So far, however, polls indicate that Democrats are not being penalized for the Lewinsky controversy, and Republicans have downgraded their predictions.
For Pennsylvania's 10th District, Democratic leaders recruited Pat Casey, son of the popular former governor Robert Casey. The antiabortion, pro-gun Casey offers Democrats a rare shot at winning GOP Rep. Joseph M. McDade's Scranton-area seat, now that the Appropriations Committee baron is retiring.
Democrats used a similar approach in Idaho District 2 (Richard Stallings), Mississippi District 4 (Ronnie Shows) and Kentucky District 4 (Ken Lucas).
Meanwhile, Republicans have seen some of their most popular incumbents retire or run for higher office, forcing them to field newcomers in difficult swing districts.
By all demographic and historical measures, the 2nd District in Wisconsin should be Democratic, and with moderate Rep. Scott L. Klug (R) retiring, Democrats are seen as having a strong chance to reclaim it. The GOP is also disappointed by the departures of Reps. Mike Parker (Miss.), Jim Bunning (Ky.) and Frank Riggs (Calif.) seats now in danger of changing hands.
Republicans do take comfort in the departures of some well-entrenched Democrats, among them Reps. David E. Skaggs (Colo.) and Vic Fazio (Calif.), and the selection of two new moderates for key open seats in California.
As is often the case, first-termers who have not solidified their grip on the seat are prime targets. This year they include Reps. Bill Redmond (R-N.M.), Vince Snowbarger (R-Kan.), Jay Johnson (D-Wis.) and James H. Maloney (D-Conn.).
Some incumbents, such as Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), appear to have learned from the scares of 1996, paying more attention to constituent concerns and fund-raising.
Both parties also had their share of recruiting failures, races in which they could not find a strong candidate for an otherwise promising seat. For Democrats, one of the biggest disappointments was failing to mount an aggressive challenge to freshman Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R), who won Missouri's historically Democratic 9th District with a paltry 49 percent. The GOP, meanwhile, could not muster a single strong challenge to any seats in Florida that are held by Democrats or are open, even though the state is increasingly Republican.
Although much of the country is enjoying the strong economy, Hawaii's recession could cost Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano and Rep. Neil Abercrombie, both Democrats, their jobs. A recent GOP poll found that 67 percent of Hawaiians believe the state is on the wrong track, a strong indicator of voter dissatisfaction.
For the first time, one party the Democrats could have four declared lesbians on the ballot, while Republicans have four African Americans mounting credible House campaigns.
One of the liveliest contests of 1998 is certain to be the California rematch between first-term Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) and former representative Robert K. Dornan (R), where Hispanic turnout could determine the outcome. Beaten by Sanchez in 1996, Dornan spent more than a year charging fraud before he gave up.
The first sign of the political winds will come in just two weeks, when voters in New Mexico choose someone to replace the late Rep. Steven Schiff (R). Both parties are pouring vast sums of money and talent into the contest between state Sen. Phil Maloof (D) and former GOP state Cabinet secretary Heather Wilson. If Maloof wins, the hurdle for Democrats falls to just 10 seats.
Staff researcher Ben White and staff reporters Juliet Eilperin and Tom Kenworthy contributed to this report.
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