IF THE BIG WINNERS of the election were the Republican leaders of the Senate and the Democratic leaders of the House, the big losers were Jesse Helms' Congressional Club and Terry Dolan's National Conservative Political Action Committee. In 1980, they were the scourge of liberal Democrats, raising money for conservative Republicans and running campaigns against incumbent liberals. Mr. Helms got roll calls on the floor of the Senate expressly to embarrass colleagues on such issues as abortion and school prayer. NCPAC ran ads, some of which were inaccurate. "A group like ours," Mr. Dolan admitted, "could lie through its teeth and the candidate it helps stays clean."
Flushed with success, NCPAC and the Congressional Club between them spent some $18.6 million in 1981 and up to Oct. 12, 1982. But this time they got no scalps. Their campaigns were the most futile since John Connally spent $11 million for one presidential delegate in 1980. NCPAC targeted six Democratic senators for 1982. Five of them won -- in large part by making NCPAC their target.
In 1981, when NCPAC targeted him, Sen. Paul Sarbanes was not well known in many parts of Maryland and had not started setting up a campaign. NCPAC's advertising spurred him to action, and the NCPAC threat made it easier for him to raise money to make his own case. In Montana, Sen. John Melcher was targeted by NCPAC even though he opposed abortion and the Panama Canal Treaty. He won with an ad showing "outsiders" stepping off a plane with an attach,e case that, when it flew open, proved to be full of cash.
Also humiliated on Tuesday was Sen. Helms. His fund-raising PAC, the Congressional Club, targeted five House races -- three against incumbent Democrats and two in behalf of freshmen Republicans -- in the senator's home state of North Carolina. Seven days before the election, President Reagan went to Raleigh and campaigned for this Helms slate. His official host was Bill Cobey, a Republican candidate who seemed to be a sure winner. He had raised over $400,000, and his opponent, incumbent Ike Andrews, had recently been arrested for drunk driving in a state that until 1978 did not allow the sale of liquor by the drink. But Ike Andrews won, and all five of the Helms candidates lost, in perhaps the most stinging personal rebuke voters administered on Tuesday.
One of the lessons some will draw from the 1982 elections is that so-called negative campaigning -- the attack -- is a must. The rebukes administered to NCPAC and Mr. Helms may be evidence to the contrary. So too may have been the defeats of candidates whose negative ads seemed to cross that narrow line between fair comment and unfair exaggeration. Jerry Brown in California and Harrison Schmitt in New Mexico, Haley Barbour in Mississippi and Margaret Heckler in Massachusetts -- all ran ads or used campaign tactics that seemed to voters to cross that line, and all lost. Tuesday's election was a vote against the aginners.