For the next six weeks, Republican Audrey Scott and Democrat Steny Hoyer will wage a congressional campaign in the suburbs of the nation's capital that will draw national attention as an early referedum on the policies of the Reagan administration. Oddly, in light of the conservative mood in Washington, the Democrats seem more comfortable with that prospect than the Republicans.
The scene of this special congressional election, the northern portion of Prince George's County, has elected only one local Republican official in six years. The district went overwhelmingly for Jimmy Carter last year, and is home to some 38,000 federal workers, some of whose jobs have been threatened by Reagan cuts. It is not, and never has been, a particularly good place for Republicans to risk everything on one cast of the political dice.
Republican leaders say they fear that any effort to make the Prince George's election a national test would back fire.When the state party chairman, Allan C. Levey, attempted to speak of the congressional contest in national terms a while ago, he was quietly rebuked by White House officials, who reportedly called him up and told him to tone down his analyses.
Since Levey's quickly amended statement, no GOP official has claimed that the 5th District election May 19 represents anything beyond its local implications. Said Scott's campaign manager, Stu Piper, yesterday: "The idea that this is a natinal referendum is not one that we agree with. It is more a race of personalities, of personal style."
Still, national and state Republican leaders have moved quickly to embrace Scott, the mayor of Bowie who easily crushed all opponents in a Republican primary Tuesday. Yesterday she was given promises of money, workers and other campaign assistance as she made the rounds of officials at the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. A few hours later Scott traveled to the Capitol to receive the blessings of House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-Ill.).
But as quickly as the Republicans have moved, so have the Democrats, announcing through state and national leaders that this is the race to slow the momentum of Reagan and the Republicans. As Scott met with Republican leaders in Washington, Hoyer came to Capitol Hill and House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill's office for a bearhug endorsement before dozens of reporters.
"We as Democrats and in the leadership will do anything we can do to help [Hoyer] win the election -- raise money, go over to the district and ring doorbells, anything else you can think of," O'Neill told the assemblage.
Even as O'Neill spoke, officials at the Democratic National Committee were preparing to conduct benchmark polls for the Hoyer campaign, set up additional telephone banks and call in nationally known Democrats to campaign. "It is a very serious race for us," said Ann Lewis, a DNC official, "We want to show we take a Democratic victory very, very seriously and show that we intend to maintain a Democratic House."
The state Democratic Party also has promised to raise money and send some of their notables into the district on behalf of Hoyer. Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes and several other well-known Democratic officials in the state will venture into Prince George's County Saturday to endorse Hoyer.
As important as the endorsements and the national offers of support will be to this campaign, the issues raised may be even more so. For as the six-week race progresses, the Reagan budget proposals are certain to dominate national and local news, and the differences between Scott, the Republican, and Hoyer, the Democrat, will emerge.
during the primary, Scott declared herself in wholehearted support of the Reagan economic package as a way to curb inflation and "get this country going again. "But she carefully separated herself from Reagan proposals that would cut benefits to the federal workers in her district and from proposed funding cuts for schools and the region's Metro system.
This is a platform that Scott says she will carry throughout the campaign in her bid to capture the support of registered Democrats, who comprise three out of every four voters in the district and whose support she needs to win the election.
But mindful of Reagan's loss to Carter in the district by some 15,000 votes and of the district's tendency to support liberal or moderate candidates in national elections, the Scott campaign at this early juncture appears more eager to focus on the weaknesses of her opponent, the same sort of tactic that proved successful in her underdog primary campaign against Lawrence Hogan Jr.
Just moments after her victory speech Tuesday night, for instance, she quickly turned her attention to her Democratic opponent and labeled him a "big spender, a machine candidate and a carpetbagger." Hoyer, the former Maryland Senate president and head of the county Democratic organization, lives four blocks south of the 5th District. He is quick to point out, however, that after this year's redistricting, his Berkshire home is likely to be included in the 5th District.
Scott has good reason to focus the campaign on personality rather than party, for she has come up the loser in two races for the state legislature in which her name ran on the Republican line. But campaign manager Piper says this time things are different.
"That was in just a small and very, very Democratic area [her hometown of Bowie] in the county and with a very small budget. It's not the same. This time there will be a lot of money [through the national Republican committees] and a lot of attention focused on the race."
Hoyer's campaign workers say they fully expect Scott to run a campaign based on personality and that they intend to as well. "The race is simply a choice between two people and a judgment as to who can best serve the district over the long haul," said Hoyer.
Hoyer will continue to stress his experience in the Maryland Statehouse, where he served as a Prince George's senator for 12 years until losing a bid for lieutenant governor in 1978, and his acknowledged ability as a mediator. And because the Democrats are as uncertain as the Republicans about the popularity of Reagan's a policies at this juncture, Hoyer has avoided harsh attacks on the administration, saying only that there are many Reagan proposals -- including across-the-board tax cuts and reductions in social programs, federal worker benefits and Metro subsidies -- that he opposes.
As important as these matters of substance and personality are, they probably will not emerge in the next few days, as the campaigns expand their primary operation for general election assualt. For the next week, the candidates will film television adverstisements, organize fundraisers, meet with representatives of political action committees and return to the telephone banks they left only two days ago.
And until those task are accomplished, the "classic confrontation," as one Scott campaign worker put it, between the Democrat and the Republican, and their respective county, state and national organizations, will have to wait.