A Hot Spot in Struggle for House
By Thomas B. Edsall
The Ohio River Valley has become ground zero in the struggle for control of the House.
Tough primary and general election contests in seven contiguous congressional districts are testing the strength of the Christian Right and the establishment wings of the Republican Party, the business and labor factions of the Democratic Party, the Clinton agenda and the GOP's conservative message, along with the abortion-guns-crime issues that drove the 1994 Republican Revolution.
Suburbanization and growing affluence are sharpening the conflicts in a region where the antiabortion movement first took root, where conservative leader Gary Bauer was born and raised, where Robert Mapplethorpe and Larry Flynt are subjects of bitter public debate.
Here in Hamilton County, the congressional contest pits Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who is pro-government and supports abortion rights, against Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), a staunch fiscal and social conservative, in one of the most direct ideological confrontations in the nation.
The day after Qualls announced her candidacy, Chabot called on "Ms. Qualls to explain why she supports the horrific practice of late-term partial-birth abortions." Moving to define the debate, Chabot declared: "This campaign will present a clash of truly held principles."
"I don't intend to go out there and say, `I'm a nice guy and she's a nice lady, so vote for me because I'm nice,' " said Chabot, a member of 1994 Republican class that took over the House.
Qualls countered that Chabot "has no interest in focusing on the real issues of concern," which she believes to be financing Social Security, expanded support for education and protection of patients' interests when dealing the HMOs and other health providers.
Reluctant to be drawn into a debate over social issues, Qualls said her view on abortion is "that the decision relative to protecting the health and life of women needs to be a decision made between the woman and her physician."
The districts in this region, the highest concentration of competitive House races in the nation, are a crucial part of what strategists for both parties expect to be roughly 50 close congressional contests nationwide.
Of the seven seats at stake here, four are held by Republicans, three by Democrats. A Democratic sweep would give the party one-third of the gains it needs to regain control of the House. A Republican sweep would virtually guarantee that the 106th Congress will be run by the GOP.
In what may be a signal of the overall outcome in November, however, prospects now are for very little change in the partisan balance of power here in the Ohio River Valley suggesting that Democrats face a tough, uphill struggle in their quest to win back control of the House.
Just to the south of Cincinnati, in a Kentucky district running from the suburbs of Louisville to Covington and Newport in the northern part of the state all the way to Ashland in eastern Kentucky, a rising star of the Christian right, state Sen. Gex "Jay" Williams (R), is running for the open House seat, betting that his message has a wider appeal.
Here and elsewhere in this region, conservative candidates are focusing on voters whose parents' loyalty to the Democratic Party was cemented by FDR and the Great Depression. But as these voters have prospered and moved from the hill country to beltway neighborhoods, they have been drawn to the GOP, which they see as more supportive of traditional values.
Williams, who has won the backing of such heavyweight conservatives as Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, William J. Bennett and Bauer, faces a primary fight with an establishment Republican, Rick Robinson, who has the endorsement of many local GOP leaders, including Rep. Jim Bunning (R), who is giving up the seat to run for Senate.
Combining sophisticated high-tech, computerized techniques to mobilize key constituencies with a mastery of parliamentary maneuver, Williams helped orchestrate a state Senate "coup" that forced out the Democratic old guard and transferred power to a coalition 18 Republicans and five dissident Democrats.
The coup helped unleash a flood tide of antiabortion and other conservative measures many of them initiated or sponsored by Williams that for years had been bottled up in committee.
"I'm the guy who goes out there and causes trouble, the rebel," Williams said in an interview.
Adversaries who have done battle with Williams privately voice a grudging respect. "They say that if you get bit by a snapping turtle, it takes a clap of thunder to get him to let up. I don't know what it takes with Gex," one said. "Folks up in Washington thought they got rid of Bob Dornan [a conservative California House Republican defeated in 1996]. They don't know it, but they're about to get another," a Williams critic said.
Together, the House contests in Kentucky will provide a gauge of the Republican realignment of the South as it reaches beyond the black belt into the border states. The GOP has a chance of emerging in control of both Kentucky Senate seats, the entire House delegation and the state Senate, where Democrats currently hold a 20 to 18 majority.
Whoever wins the GOP primary, Williams or Robinson, will likely face Boone County Judge (the equivalent of a county executive) Ken Lucas in the general election. Although the district leans strongly to the GOP Robert J. Dole defeated President Clinton, 49 percent to 41 percent officials of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee claim Lucas is the ideal conservative, pro-business Democrat for the seat. Through 1997 he had raised substantially more money, $211,033, than either Robinson, $128,302, or Williams, $118,117.
The amount of money being raised and spent in these House races is an indication of their importance. In the Kentucky district held by Democrat Scotty Baesler, who is running for the Senate, the flow of money into the highly competitive seven-person Democratic primary has been massive. At the start of 1998, Democratic candidates had raised a total of $1.36 million, with three raising more than $300,000 each.
John "Eck" Rose, the state Senate president ousted in the coup, is widely viewed as the front-runner in the primary, although whoever wins will not have an easy time in the general election. The GOP nominee is likely to be former state representative and Baptist minister Ernest Fletcher, a conservative who won 44 percent running against Baesler in 1996, when Clinton barely carried the district, 46 percent to 45 percent.
To the west of the Baesler and Bunning districts, freshman Anne Northup (R) had raised a small fortune ($603,126) by the start of the year to defend her Louisville-based seat, where many voters had split their ballots to give her a 1,299-vote win, while backing Clinton over Dole by a decisive 53 percent to 40 percent.
She may benefit from the fact that the Democratic primary to select her challenger taps directly into the party's traditional fissures. It pits liberal, pro-labor, abortion rights supporter Virginia Woodward, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Women, against pro-business, antiabortion Chris Gorman, a former state attorney general.
With the primary 2 1/2 months away, the Woodward-Gorman contest has already taken on a hard edge. DCCC and state party leaders are backing Gorman, privately contending that Woodward is too liberal to win. Ken Horwitz, Woodward's manager, countered: "Gorman is just like Anne Northup; they are the same. The people need a real choice, and Virginia is the only candidate who shows a real contrast to Anne Northup."
The only one of the seven competitive districts in this region where the Democrat is the clear favorite is just to the north of Louisville, across the river in Indiana. There, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D), retiring after 17 terms, has passed the baton to Baron Hill, a former state senator well known as a high school track and basketball star.
By the end of 1997, Hill had raised an intimidating $308,098, while Jean Leising, the likely GOP nominee who lost to Hamilton in 1994, had raised only $52,972.
Just to the west of Hamilton's district, Democrats are banking on Evansville City Council member Gail Reiken to take down two-term Rep. John Hostettler (R), a fundamentalist-backed conservative who has seen his winning margin drop from 8,672 votes in 1994 to 3,658 votes in 1996.
The district, however, leans toward the GOP, according to calculations by political analyst Charlie Cook; Clinton defeated Dole there by just 2 percentage points, 45 percent to 43 percent.
Perhaps the most competitive district of all these seats lies to the east, where the up and down trends are reflected in the incumbent's track record over the past three elections. In 1992, Ted Strickland (D) won the seat by 51 percent to 49 percent; two years later he lost it to Republican Frank Cremeans, 49 percent to 51 percent, and in 1996, Strickland won it back again, 51 percent to 49 percent.
This year will test whether Strickland has finally been able to establish a reliable base of support in this 60 percent rural district. Most observers believe Strickland is better prepared for the election than he was for his previous races, with $210,441 in the bank at the start of the year. But his general election opponent remains uncertain.
The two leading contestants come from opposite sides of the Republican ideological spectrum and would present very different challenges to Strickland: Lt. Gov. Nancy Hollister, a moderate aligned with the tax-raising administration of Gov. George V. Voinovich, and Cremeans, an anti-tax, Christian-backed conservative.
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