There are rather good election campaigns going on out there -- once you get past Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and John B. Anderson. In the contests for Senate and House seats and the relatively few governorships that are up this year, there are genuine debates between vigorous advocates of opposing views and contenders with credentials for the offices they are seeking.
Because the presidency so totally -- and inappropriately -- dominates the political dialogue, even in a year when the major contenders are saying almost nothing, these other campaigns tend to be overshadowed. But there are some things happening at other levels of the ballot that are worthy of note.
The passage of power from the older to the younger generation -- still stymied in the White House -- is proceeding apace at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Time is a capricious master. While many voters seem ready to start a novice 69-year-old in the presidency, those in New York have turned wise and experienced 76-year-old Sen. Jacob Javits (R) from a favorite for reelection into a third-place contender on a minor-party line. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D), the person likely to replace him, is 39.
At the other end of the country, Sen. Warren G. Magnuson (D), 75, who has represented Washington in Congress since 1937, faces his toughest challenge in decades from Attorney General Slade Gorton (R), a comparative stripling of 52.
Sen. Milton R. Young (R) of North Dakota, 82, is at last yielding his seat to his intra-party rival, Rep. Mark Andrews (R), 54, and Andrews in turn may be replaced in the House by Tax Commissioner Byron Dorgan (D), 38, a one-time anti-war activist who is part of the national network of populist and neighborhood organizers.
North Dakota is not the only state where retirements have created opportunities for younger politicians who have been eager to take on greater responsibilities. The same thing has happened with Senate seats in Connecticut, Illinois, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania -- though skeptics can properly wonder whether the replacements in any of those states will match the quality of the retirees.
In the House, the probable pattern is one of stability -- not change -- and that is welcome. There are only 43 open seats, where the incumbents are retiring, running for other office or were defeated in primaries. The 10 percent vacancy rate is the lowest in recent years.
While several senior House Democrats like John Brademas of Indiana, Morris K. Udall of Arizona and Bob Eckhardt of Texas face unusually stiff challenges, in general the reelection prospects for both Democrats and Republicans who were first elected in the 1970s appear excellent in this first election of the 1980s.
That stability is welcome, because the high turnover rate in the House in the elections of the 1970s -- kand the prospect of another wholesale reshuffling following dredistricting in 1982 -- have made the House quirky, nervous and unpredictable.
The political security that junior members will gain from having one more election safely under their belts should make it somewhat easier for them to accept the discipline and responsibility of facing up to the hard legislative choices many of them have been inclined to finesse in their first few sessions. c
Meanwhile, the congressional and senatorial candidates in many districts and states are providing the kind of stimulating debate that has been so conspicuously missing in the presidential contest.
The other week, I heard Rep. Chris Dodd (D) and ex-senator Jim Buckley (R) present an exceptionally skillful and civil definition of their contrasting energy and economic policies in Connecticut.
Iowans have had a slam-bang series of debates between Sen. John Culver (D) and his challenger, Rep. Charles Grassley (R). In Colorado, Sen. Gary Hart (D) has agreed to several debates with his opponent, Secretary of State Mary Estill Buchanan (R). And in Oregon, Sen. Bob Packwood (R) is doing the same thing with state senator Ted Kulongoski (D).
In almost all these races, the choice for voters is not between the lesser of two evils but between rivals who seem fully qualified by temperament, age and experience for the job.
The same is true in some of the House districts I have visited. Voters around New Haven, for example, have the luxury of choosing between two men who made exceptional records in the state Senate -- Democrat Joe Lieberman and Republican Larry DeNardis -- to succeed retiring House Budget Committee Chairman Robert Giaimo (D).
Many of the best of the new candidates this year are women, and some of them -- like Lynn Martin (R) in Illinois' 16th District and Lynn Cutler (D) in Iowa's 3rd District, are waging their contests with a vigor and skill you wish could be transfused into the lackluster presidential race.