Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Richard Lugar of Indiana will not be on the ballot this year. Bob Dole of Kansas will, but he has no opposition in his race for reelection.
These three men -- respectively the chairmen of the Senate Budget and Foreign Relations committees and the Senate majority leader -- constitute three of the best reasons for voting Republican in the states with Senate contests this November.
As a practical matter, they will sway few if any votes. Campaign consultants with whom I've talked are just about unanimous in saying that while party control of the Senate may matter a great deal to many contributors, to all politicians and political junkies and, obviously, to the president, most voters could not care less.
The last thing on the mind of someone in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, is whether Lugar is a better chairman of Foreign Relations than the man who would replace him if the Democrats regained the Senate majority, Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island. That Idaho voter will decide between Sen. Steve Symms and his challenger, Democratic Gov. John Evans, on the basis of their merits or demerits.
Down in Georgia, I've heard some Democratic politicians say they think they can get people to vote against Sen. Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.) by arguing that his defeat will help make the state's popular Democratic senator, Sam Nunn, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. I am skeptical of that tactic. After all, Mattingly can easily point out that a vote against him will also help give Edward M. Kennedy his choice of chairmanships of the Judiciary or Labor committees.
In reality, our politics is so personalized and so devoid of party loyalty that few voters realize they are making a double choice when they vote for a House or Senate member. They are picking their own spokesman in Washington, and they are simultaneously helping decide which party will organize Congress and control its committees.
Having spent some time in recent weeks with Dole, Domenici and Lugar, I can't help but wonder if most of us don't dismiss this question of party control too casually. These three men -- responsible for the overall performance of the Senate and for its budget and foreign policy panels -- are of such exceptional quality that their performance ought to weigh somewhere in the voters' calculus this November.
Lugar, the member of the trio I've seen most recently, is intellectually impressive, politically courageous, doggedly determined, yet understanding and respectful of others' views. The same qualities would be ascribed to Dole and Domenici by the vast majority of their colleagues in both parties and by the reporters who cover them.
What is most striking about all three men is their large-mindedness, their ability to see beyond their personal ambitions (which are, in each case, substantial) and beyond the parochial interests of their states. They approach questions -- in the old phrase -- as United States senators.
Lugar has demonstrated those qualities most recently in persuading the Reagan administration to shift its policy in the Philippines away from Ferdinand Marcos and toward Corazon Aquino, and in urging the Senate to reconsider its opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He stuck to his principles in both fights, despite the evident political risks. At the same time, he recognized why President Reagan was soft on Marcos and why his colleagues were nervous about the Saudi arms deal. In both cases, his tactics were effective, and it is likely that his judgment will be proved sound.
Domenici has shown the same tactical skill, sound judgment and political courage repeatedly over the last five years on tough issues of budget policy, opposing the dogmatists in the administration and in both parties on Capitol Hill. Dole has stuck his neck out so often on issues from civil rights to dividend and interest tax withholding that his courage has become almost commonplace.
This is not a plea to shut your eyes and vote Republican in the November Senate contest in your state, no matter what you think of the rival candidates. That advice would be absurd, and campaigning for anyone is not my line of work in any case. Not all the Republican Senate committee chairmen are paragons of wisdom, conscience or courage, by a long shot, and in notable instances, their Democratic replacements would be superior in some or all of these qualities.
But a reporter can point out that when the Republicans took control of the Senate in 1981, they had had no experience in running that body and its committees for 26 years -- a full generation. Some in Washington predicted a shambles.
Instead, it has been a performance of considerable distinction, orchestrated for four years by retired majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee. In the past 16 months under Dole, it has gotten even better, for he has a useful knack for pulling legislative rabbits out of his hat.
None of this may be relevant to the campaigns this fall. But it is not insignificant for the well-being of this country or the judgment history will make on this era.