A chart Sunday incorrectly listed Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) among senators who have no opposition for reelection this year. Warner is being opposed by Nancy Spannaus, an independent. (Published 8/8/90)

The shopworn political axiom -- "you can't beat somebody with nobody" -- has a special resonance in the Senate this year.

Sixteen of the 32 senators seeking reelection have drawn the equivalent of a bye in this November's election. Four have no opponent whatever -- the largest number to find themselves in that state of political grace in 34 years -- and a dozen others face such token resistance that their campaign war chests, as of June 30, were a minimum of 50 times larger than those of their opponents.

"We have been watching the declining competitiveness of House races for a long time, but this year there's a real fault-line shift in the Senate as well," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the public interest lobby group Common Cause. "This is what you get when you have a campaign finance system that is totally geared to incumbents."

According to reports released today by the Federal Election Commission, the 32 Senate incumbents seeking reelection had raised more money than their challengers by a combined total of $109.7 million to $23.8 million, a nearly 5 to 1 edge, and had a cash-on-hand advantage of $46.8 million to $5.5 million, an 8 to 1 edge.

"This really points up the need for spending limits," said Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chief sponsor of a bill passed by the Senate last week that calls for voluntary spending limits. "Incumbents are always going to be able to raise more than challengers. Without any limits, they can build up such big war chests that the odds for a challenger seem insurmountable. A lot of them get discouraged and never run in the first place."

Not everyone in the Senate agrees that money is at the root of this decline in competitive races. Some say the job has simply grown less attractive.

"It's not the money," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who voted against the campaign finance bill. "There's plenty of money out there for good people. The problem is that good people say, 'Why should should I go to Washington? I can stay at home, be with my family and be able to make real decisions.' Washington has become a a partisan bickering society."

Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, contended his committee has had its best recruiting year since 1980, but he acknowledged some disappointments. "The only time I heard people say that they weren't interested in Washington was when I talked to former governors like Tom Kean {N.J.}, Pete DuPont {Del.} and Lamar Alexander {Tenn.}." None of them chose to run.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had its recruiting disappointments, too -- failing to persuade former governors Jim Hunt (N.C.) and Gerald L. Baliles (Va.) and former vice president Walter F. Mondale (Minn.) to seek Senate seats this year.

"The Senate used to be thought of as an incubator for national ambitions," said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in Congress. "But we haven't had a {former} senator elected president since 1968. We also used to think of the Senate as an incubator of programs and public policy ideas. That may have been true in the 1960s and 1970s, but it's not a label you would put on the Senate in the 1980s."

Like Wertheimer, Ornstein said he sees heavy early fund-raising by incumbents as an important new means of deterrence. "The first guy to really make fund-raising a six-year job was Al D'Amato {R-N.Y.}," Ornstein said. "He was thought of as one of the most vulnerable members elected in 1980, but he started raising money right away. By the time people were ready to think about running against him in 1985, he was sitting on $5 million in the bank -- and he got away without a competitive race. Now, you see more and more senators following that pattern."

Ornstein disputed the argument that spending limits would redress this pattern, however. "I think of campaigns as a 100-yard dash, where incumbents start on the 50-yard line," he said. "Spending limits turn the race into an 80-yard dash. That makes it even harder for challengers to catch up."

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), one of the four senators who has no opponent this fall, took issue both with those who see money at the heart of the problem and those who think the Senate has lost some of its sheen. "To the vast majority of elected officials, it's still the best job out there," he said.

"For the first four years of my cycle, I did no fund-raising at all, and I returned any checks that people sent me," he added. "I just didn't want to spend my time raising money." Last year, Cochran raised about $1 million and this year no Democrat in Mississippi -- a state with an all-Democratic House delegation that has not had a Republican governor since Reconstruction -- chose to run against him.

Like Cochran, the three other senators who have no opponents this year are from the South -- Democrats Sam Nunn of Georgia and David Pryor of Arkansas and Republican John W. Warner of Virginia.

The lack of competitive races in the Senate is especially notable given the growth in anti-incumbent feelings expressed by voters outraged over the savings and loan scandal. As luck would have it, none of the "Keating Five" senators under investigation for allegedly intervening improperly on behalf of thrift owner Charles H. Keating Jr. are up for reelection this year.

The fact that less than half of the Senate races are considered competitive this year does not necessarily mean there will be less turnover this November than in the past, political experts noted. Of the 15 competitive Senate races, seven include Republican members of Congress who are either opposing an incumbent or seeking an open seat. Most of these races are considered close.

Ironically, the willingness of so many Republicans to give up safe House seats to seek the Senate is in part attributable to the uncompetitiveness of House races. In 1988 and 1986, a record 98 percent of all House incumbents won reelection, enabling Democrats to extend their hegemony over the House to 36 years -- further frustrating GOP members. In those same two election years, the reelection rate for Senate incumbents was 75 percent.

CANDIDATES' CASH ON HAND THROUGH JUNE 30, 1990. OF THE 32 U.S. SENATE

INCUMBENTS UP FOR REELECTION THIS YEAR, 16 FACE NO OPPOSITION, TOKEN

OPPOSITION OR UNCOMPETITIVE RACES. THEIR NAMES APPEAR HERE IN BOLD FACE.

CHALLENGERS' NAMES APPEAR IN ITALICS.

---------------------- UNOPPOSED CANDIDATE ------------------

State........Candidate...........................Cash on Hand

Arkansas.....David Pryor (D).......................$1,023,731

Georgia........Sam Nunn (D)........................$1,541,462

Mississippi........Thad Cochran (R)................$1,045,364

Virginia........John W. Warner (R).................$1,097,231

--------------------- TOKEN OPPOSITION ----------------------

State...........Candidate........................Cash on Hand

Alaska..........Ted Stevens (R)......................$836,303

................Michael Beasley (D)*.....................$100

................Tom Taggart (D)*...........................NR

Delaware........Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D)............$1,088,690

................M. Jane Brady (R).....................$20,199

Kansas..........Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R)...........$291,277

................Dick Williams (D)........................$398

New Mexico......Pete V. Domenici (R).................$807,218

................Tom R. Benavides (D).....................$135

Oklahoma........David L. Boren (D)...................$952,389

................Stephen Jones (R)..........................NR

South Carolina..Strom Thurmond (R)...................$658,850

................Robert H. Cunningham (D).................$186

Tennessee.......Albert Gore Jr. (D)..................$977,732

................Ralph Brown (R)............................$0

West Virginia...John D. Rockefeller IV (D).........$1,649,941

................John C. Yoder (R)........................$107

Wyoming.........Alan K. Simpson (R)..................$628,128

................Al Hamburg (D).............................NR

------------------- RACES NOT COMPETITIVE -------------------

State............Candidate.......................Cash on Hand

Maine............William S. Cohen (R)................$828,265

.................Neil Rolde (D)........................$9,126

New Jersey........Bill Bradley (D).................$4,366,955

..................Christine T. Whitman (R)............$74,322

Texas.............Phil Gramm (R)...................$6,257,370

..................Hugh Quay Parmer (D)................$20,512

SOURCE: Federal Election Commission; Common Cause; Secretary of U.S. Senate NOTE: *Alaska has not yet held congressional primaries, scheduled for Aug. 27. NR--no report filed with the Federal Election Commission as of July 30, 1990