The other big battleground

The other big battleground

Steven V. Roberts

As Republicans in Congress watch their popularity plunge, Democrats are starting to dream of a goal that seemed foolish just a few months ago: recapturing the House of Representatives. A Democratic victory is still a long shot, and most party strategists agree with the assessment of one campaign consultant: “Absolutely everything has to fall our way for that to happen.” But given the Republicans’ recent penchant for self-immolation, a Democratic House next year is no longer impossible.

A new survey by U.S. News pollsters Ed Goeas, a Republican, and Celinda Lake, a Democrat, shows disapproval of congressional Republicans rising from 43 percent last April to 53 percent today. Voters split evenly on whether they prefer a Republican or Democratic candidate for Congress, erasing the five-point edge the Republicans held last April. Charlie Cook, an independent analyst who closely follows Congress, gives the Democrats a 1-in-4 chance of victory. “We think that House Republican vulnerability is being understated,” writes Kevin Phillips, the Republican editor of the American Political Report.

Crucial election. The stakes are huge. Since Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932, Republicans have won the House only three times: in 1946, 1952 and 1994. After each of the first two victories they lost control in the next election. “The Republicans understand how hard it is for them to win back-to-back elections,” says Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “If they do that, it will be much harder to dislodge them.”

Normally, House races get scant attention during a presidential campaign. But by vowing to stage a Republican “revolution” on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his acolytes have raised the visibility and importance of the House races and triggered a counterattack by interest groups that feel threatened by Republican rule.

Many of these groups–representing women and labor, trial lawyers and environmentalists, blacks and gays–have begun meeting regularly at Democratic headquarters to trade information and plot strategy. Their main purpose: Aim scarce resources at key swing districts.

Organized labor has ordered polls in 40 districts to help gauge sentiment and set priorities. The AFL-CIO plans to send more than 100 organizers into each of 75 hotly contested races this fall–a direct answer to the successful grass-roots campaigns mounted by conservative Christians. “The right has done it much better,” says Steve Rosenthal, political director of the AFL-CIO.

The environmental movement is sponsoring independent advertising and direct-mail campaigns that are not subject to federal spending limits. Green groups poured more than $200,000 into last month’s special Senate race in Oregon, won by Democrat Ron Wyden, and Betsy Loyless, political director for the League of Conservation Voters, calls Oregon a “test drive” for the fall, when the league plans to spend $800,000 in 30 battleground districts.

Republicans insist that they will turn back the Democratic assault and even pick up seats. They now hold a 19-seat edge in the House, and 27 Democrats have announced plans not to run again–a sign of no confidence in their party’s prospects. Another sign: In several close districts, Democrats have failed to recruit top-notch candidates.

Eyes on Dixie. Many of the Democratic retirees are in Southern and border states, and the GOP figures to win at least six of these open seats. So Democrats must make a net gain of at least 25 seats elsewhere.

The biggest Republican advantage is money. The House GOP campaign committee raised $34.7 million last year, more than triple the Democrats’ total. Through November, individual Republicans collected almost twice as much as Democrats from political action committees. Some of the most energetic GOP fund-raisers were first termers, who raised an average of $265,000 apiece–leading Common Cause, the public-affairs lobby, to charge that the GOP freshmen “quickly have become leading players in the Washington influence money culture which they once criticized and campaigned against.”

The new Republican officeholders also can utilize the benefits of incumbency, from mailing free letters to performing favors. Says Karl Rove, a GOP consultant in Texas: “The thing that worked for them in the past now works for us.”

In the Goeas-Lake poll, voters endorsed Republican efforts to give more power to the states and to balance the federal budget. Only 9 percent complained that the GOP’s proposed budget cuts “go too far.” But 30 percent complained that congressional Republicans “are putting partisan bickering ahead of getting things done” and 25 percent said the party is “too close to the wealthy and special interests.”

Nevertheless, in an effort to energize their own base, the Democrats are making GOP “extremism” the focus of their attacks. And Stuart Rothenberg, author of a nonpartisan newsletter, thinks it is working: “The Democratic base is not excited about Bill Clinton, but at least now they have a boogeyman, an enemy.”

The Democrats’ strategy is to hammer away at Republican plans to trim programs that appeal to middle-class voters: Medicare, education and the environment. The Republicans, says Rick Ridder, a Democratic consultant in Denver, have misread the public mood: “People are not immediately saying government should be out of their lives, they just want government to be more efficient.”

Democrats tried and failed last year to make Gingrich the focus of a special election in California, but they still think he is a useful target in districts held by freshman Republicans. Thirty-three of the 74 GOP first termers represent areas carried by President Clinton, but they have voted loyally for the GOP agenda and that could make them vulnerable. “We are going to be able to attack them for blindly following the leadership,” says Don Sweitzer, a Democratic strategist.

Some Democrats, though, think their party also must come up with a positive agenda. One leading possibility is focusing on the stagnant wages and rising anxiety of middle-class families. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts addressed the issue in a speech last week, saying that the “quiet Depression” of lagging living standards would be the “defining test” for the Democrats this year.

Here are other elements of the Democrats’ emerging game plan:

Regions. Democrats see their best chance for gains in the Northeast, the industrial Midwest–particularly Ohio–and the Pacific Northwest. Second-term congressmen such as Jack Quinn in Buffalo and Peter Torkildsen in suburban Boston are among 27 GOP lawmakers who represent districts that generally vote Democratic.

Redistricting. Recent court decisions rejecting efforts to create black-majority House districts were privately cheered by Democratic strategists. Those plans crammed black voters into a few districts, leaving dozens of largely white, safely Republican seats across the South. Georgia and Louisiana will vote under revised plans this year, and Democrats think they have a shot in three or four redrawn districts now held by Republicans.

Seniors. Elderly voters split 50-50 in 1994 but now lean heavily Democratic, mainly over the Medicare issue. Seniors could be particularly helpful in rural districts of the South and Midwest.

Gender. Democratic pollsters say women are backing the party by huge margins, and Democratic consultant Diane Feldman says the key to the women’s vote is not abortion but economics: “If we make this election about economics and values, about children and families, I think we can take back the House.”

With the elections almost nine months away, the odds still favor the Republicans to hold on to the House, but the Democrats have a chance they never expected. Pollsters Goeas and Lake, however, have bad news for both parties: Their latest survey found that in the past four years voters have grown more cynical about both parties. Democrats may be winning the battle, says Lake, but “in the long run both parties may be losing the war.” In focus groups, she adds, voters often see little difference between the parties and say a pox on both their houses.

DEMOCRATIC TARGETS Democrats aim to oust these House Republicans. Numbers of terms in office are in parentheses.

Okla. : Tom Coburn (1)

Calif.: Frank Riggs (2); Brian Bilbray (1)

Wis. : Mark Neumann (1)

Colo. : Scott McInnis (2)

Nev. : John Ensign (1)

N.M. : Steve Schiff (4)

Ill. : Michael Flanagan (1); Donald Manzullo (2)

Ky. : Ed Whitfield (1)

Mass. : Peter Blute (2); Peter Torkildsen (2)

Texas : Steve Stockman (1); Henry Bonilla (2)

N.Y. : Jack Quinn (2)

Ark. : Jay Dickey (2)

Iowa : Jim Leach (10); Jim Nussle (3); Jim Lightfoot (6); Greg

Ganske (1)

Wash. : Linda Smith (1); Randy Tate (1); Rick White (1)

Ohio : Martin Hoke (2); Bob Ney (1); Frank Cremeans (1); Steve

Chabot (1)

N.C. : Fred Heineman (1); David Funderburk (1)

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