SEESAW go the Senate races of 1986. At the beginning of the year the word was that the Republicans, with 22 seats at risk, a lot of them shaky and held by 1980 freshmen, were likely to lose control. Then Democrats Russell Long and Thomas Eagleton announced that they would retire, and folks started to wonder: maybe the Republicans would hold on after all. More recently, when Republican Paul Laxalt announced that he was retiring too, the odds shifted back toward the Democrats.
Now they seem to be shifting to the Republicans again, as three young, bright Democratic congressmen have passed up Senate races in which they were called their party's strongest competitors. Last month Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) decided not to take on Senate Finance Chairman Bob Packwood; earlier this month Rep. Byron Dorgan (D- N.D.) announced he would not take on Sen. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.), whom he leads by vast margins in the polls; next month Rep. Dan Glickman (D- Kan.) is expected to pass up, as he did in 1980, a Senate race against the then backbencher and now majority leader, Bob Dole. The Democratic strategists' anguish is all the greater because these are all hard-hit farm and timber states in which their strongest candidates have refused to run.
Notably absent from this discussion, you will note, is any mention of the great issues with which Congress has been grappling. Calculations of incumbents' and challengers' strengths are made on the basis of their personal strength and of the issues with which they are personally identified -- not with their positions on tax reform, their prescriptions (if any) for closing up the budget deficit, or their panaceas for ensuring free and fair foreign trade. True, many of these men have been busy legislators, doing useful work on many back-burner issues: that was true of Sens. Dole and Packwood before they ascended to their leadership positions and is true of Reps. Wyden, Dorgan and Glickman. But is it not curious that candidates of both parties seem to be fighting it out on such personal and parochial issues?
The Senate Republicans have actually forged unified and distinctive stands on major issues; but as the 1986 elections approach, more and more of them are following the lead of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and stressing what is distinctive about their own records rather than what is characteristic of their party in their chamber. As for the Democrats, their approach to issues in the Senate has been fragmented even for them. The result is a close race for control of the Senate -- a race the oddsmakers are handicapping not by the voters' response to national issues but to local and personal ones. In these circumstances, you're wise not to bet heavily on the result; the odds are likely to shift a few times more between now and next November.