The independent oil industry, which helped finance the sharp turn to the political right in 1980, was one of the major losers in the election this year.
From coast to coast, the majority of candidates supported by independent oil were beaten. Liberal Democratic incumbents fended off conservative GOP challengers, and some of the industry's most prized victors in the 1980 Republican freshman class went down to defeat.
It was especially bad for the Dallas Energy PAC (DALENPAC), an independent oil committee that channeled $244,000 into 14 Senate and 63 House races this year. In 1980, DALENPAC won 77 percent of the Senate races to which it contributed and 60 percent of its House races; this year, it won only four Senate races, or 29 percent, and 14 House races, 22 percent.
"It was not a marvelous record," Patricia N. Wilson, an independent producer who runs DALENPAC, said.
"It was a bleak year for us," admitted Jack Webb, executive director of the Houston Political Action Committee (HOUPAC), which got about half its money from independent oil producers. It contributed more than $190,000 to 132 House and Senate races, of which it won 47 percent.
In 1980, independent oil emerged as a significant political force. Unlike most industries, it was willing, if not downright eager, to provide large sums early in the election period to conservative challengers of incumbents. The overwhelming majority of candidates the industry backed were Republicans.
"If money talks," William C. Anderson, senior government relations specialist for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), wrote in a newsletter, then "early money shouts."
In addition, independent oil concentrated on non-oil-producing states and districts, on the theory that oil areas already supported the industry's interests and had conservative representation.
The money flowed into Frost Belt states. In 1980 it helped defeat such liberal Democrats as Sens. John Culver of Iowa, Birch Bayh of Indiana, George McGovern of South Dakota and Frank Church of Idaho, who were replaced by such right-wing stalwarts as Charles Grassley of Iowa and Steven Symms of Idaho.
This year, by contrast, the drive to oust Democratic incumbents fell on its face. The only senator to lose was Howard W. Cannon (D-Nev.), and only three House incumbents lost. Oil money was significant in the races of two, Reps. Robert N. Shamansky of Ohio and Leo C. Zeferetti of New York.
The independent oil industry's political track record is reflected in part by the early endorsements -- "wildcat prospects" -- of the IPAA. These were key races selected on the theory that early support can be greatly significant in getting a campaign off the ground.
In November, 1981, very early in the election cycle, IPAA recommended that its supporters contribute to Rep. Robin L. Beard (R-Tenn.) in his bid to defeat Sen. James Sasser and to Rep. Clint Roberts (R-S.D.), who, because his state lost one of its two House seats due to redistricting, ran against Rep. Thomas A. Daschle (D).
Then in January, IPAA issued three more endorsements: Rep. Bruce Caputo (R-N.Y.), who was then challenging Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan; Rep. Cleve Benedict (R-W.Va.), who was challenging Sen. Robert C. Byrd, and Bill Kennedy, the Republican challenger to Rep. Fortney H. (Pete) Stark (D-Calif.).
None won. Caputo dropped out, three got less than 40 percent of the general election vote (Beard, 38 percent; Benedict, 31; Kennedy 39), and Roberts lost to Daschle by 48 percent to 52 percent, despite South Dakota's general shift to the right in recent elections.
"Not so good," a laconic Lloyd N. Unsell, executive vice president of the IPAA, said about the election results.
Unsell contended, however, that the results are not as bad for conservative interests as the numbers might indicate. He pointed out that the redistricting after the 1980 census shifted House seats from the Frost Belt to the Sun Belt, and "a Democrat in Texas isn't the same as a Democrat in New York. They are 180 degrees apart, philosphically."
In addition, oil-backed candidates won some open-seat races. Republican Pete Wilson defeated Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. for the Senate in California, and Rep. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R) won the Virginia Senate race against Richard J. Davis.
Unsell said the threat of new taxes on the industry "is always a danger," but he argued that the 26 new Democratic seats in the House increase the danger by a tiny factor.
Webb of HOUPAC noted, however, the defeat of a number of House GOP freshmen for whom the oil industry pulled out all the stops.
"I hated to lose Clint Roberts, I hated to lose Wendell Bailey R-Mo. , I hated to lose Albert Lee Smith R-Ala. ," he said, pointing to just a few of the incumbent losses.
Webb said he thought GOP candidates this year had gone "back to an elitist position," and the Republicans should field candidates who are "a little more populist if they are going to appeal to conservative Democrats." The 1980 victories were "a rare, once-in-a-lifetime thing for us conservatives," he added.
For the Republicans to win, Wilson of DALENPAC said, they should become "less ideological now that they are in power...more moderate, but not on fiscal matters."