Putting A Dent In The GOP
By Donna Cassata, CQ Staff Writer
(CQ, July 11) -- Down by the Mississippi River, in what has become the bedrock Republican South, Ronnie Shows is running for the House on an unimpeachable conservative record.
He is opposed to abortion, gun control, gay rights and tax-and-spend government. He also is one of the Democrats' -- yes, the Democrats' -- best hopes in November.
Dotted throughout the ever-changing political landscape this election year are a handful of Democratic candidates with solid conservative credentials that improve their odds of claiming several of the open seats previously held by the GOP.
These candidates -- in Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Idaho and Kentucky -- give the minority party a chance at bucking history and making inroads in the GOP's slim, 11-seat majority on Nov. 3.
"If we had the election today, we'd win seven seats," said 12-term Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania.
Tradition, however, is working against the Democrats. The party controlling the presidency has increased its numbers in the House in a midterm election on only one occasion since the Civil War -- in 1934, during the Depression.
But history is not the only force Democrats such as Shows must overcome. Of greater significance are the strong crosscurrents that make the handful of bold predictions that the Democrats will regain control of the House seem far-fetched and transform GOP claims that they will gain a minimum of 10 seats into a legitimate assessment.
Among the crosscurrents:
- Strong GOP tide. Republican governors in states such as Texas, New York and Pennsylvania are basking in 25-point-plus leads in recent polls and their coattails could help GOP House candidates. Not lost on the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is the fact that several governors have higher political aspirations, and they will not be content with a plain vanilla, 60 percent to 65 percent win.
- Status quo year, low turnout. Democrats are facing the power of incumbency in economically strong times and the likelihood of record-low voter turnout that political analysts believe will favor the Republicans in the midterm election.
"When God tells you to vote or you're mad," you head to the polls, said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake in a reference to the religious right base of the GOP.
In a June report filled with dire warnings about a disaffected democracy, the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate predicted that the number of eligible voters who cast their ballots in November could fall to the lowest level since 1942, with less than 36 percent of eligible voters voting.
The nonpartisan research group, which analyzes voter participation, based its estimate on the average turnout in the early primaries this year, which showed a decline from 19.6 percent of the eligible vote to 16.9 percent, a drop of nearly 14 percent from 1994 and a precipitous decrease of 48 percent from 1970.
- Money. The GOP also has a clear-cut fundraising advantage over the Democrats. The NRCC had total federal receipts of $28.7 million for this election cycle compared with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's $14.5 million, according to the latest Federal Election Commission reports.
- Republican victories. The outcome of GOP contests in the first half of the primary season, in which more viable, moderate Republicans prevailed, and Oklahoma Republican Rep. Wes Watkins' reversal on his retirement plans also strengthen the GOP's hand in keeping control of the House.
- Starr investigation. A possible crosscurrent is the outcome of Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of President Clinton and congressional probes of potential national security flaws in U.S. policy with China.
- Weak Democratic Party. And then there is the harsh reality that in some states the Democratic Party has virtually disappeared, compared with a well-organized and well-financed state GOP.
"There is none," Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi said flatly when asked about the status of his state's Democratic Party.
'Kitchen Table Concerns'
Some political observers argue that a shell of a Democratic Party will make it difficult for a candidate such as Shows to win in November in Mississippi's 4th District, where Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Mike Parker decided not to seek re-election.
Taylor said a Democratic Party with barely a pulse would be a problem for a novice Mississippi candidate but will have little impact on a veteran politician such as Shows.
Voters in Mississippi have elected Shows circuit court clerk in Jefferson Davis County, to a seat in the state legislature and to the influential post of transportation commissioner for the past 10 years. The state has three transportation commissioners who divvy up the highway funds.
"Those roads out there don't know Republicans or Democrats," Shows said. "The majority of the people want you to be moderate, working on kitchen table concerns."
Shows also may benefit from the GOP's ugly scramble to pick a nominee. He will face Jackson lawyer Delbert Hosemann, who emerged as the Republican choice in the June 23 runoff after a divisive campaign marked by accusations of political dirty tricks and an FBI investigation.
The demographics of the district also will be a factor. Minorities, who make up a large portion of the Democratic base, account for about 40 percent of the district's population.
Republicans crow that Democratic hopes rest with candidates who have little in common with national party leaders and who bear a striking resemblance to the GOP.
"They've recruited candidates who don't agree with their party," said Mary Crawford, a spokeswoman for the NRCC. "It's a prima-facie admission."
Even if a Democrat such as Shows is elected, some political observers believe there will be no room in the Democratic Caucus for that type of Southern conservative.
"They are a pig out of water when they get to Washington," said political consultant Claiborne Darden, who has advised Democratic and Republican candidates. "Either they have to change and lose support, or they isolate themselves and it doesn't work."
Not anymore, according to Taylor. Four years in the minority have convinced the Democrats that they cannot afford to be exclusive.
"They have learned their lesson -- hopefully," Taylor said.
A different attitude is not the only change for the Democratic Party. In years past, when the party had a firm grasp on the House majority, discipline was not a demand on the leadership.
"Coelho put money everywhere," Murtha said, referring to former Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Calif. (1979-89), who once chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).
This year, using data from the National Committee for an Effective Congress, a demographic organization that works with the party, Democrats carefully chose their battles.
Mark Gersh, Washington director of the organization, said his group analyzed how incumbents had performed in the past two or three elections, examined the 1996 presidential vote and looked at whether voters chose by party in races where they knew little about lesser candidates such as state auditor.
That, combined with the quality of the candidates the party recruited, went a long way toward determining what races the Democrats would target.
Republicans argue that the data and recruiting did not paint a positive picture for the Democrats, and as evidence they cite the number of GOP candidates with no major party opposition.
Forty-eight Republicans will have no opposition in November, and that number could increase as 10 states hit their candidate filing deadline. One of those states is New York, with a July 16 deadline. Twenty-eight Democrats are running unopposed this year.
Races Worth Watching
Among the races worth watching are:
- Pennsylvania 10. Democrat Patrick Casey's strength is his last name. His father, Robert, is a former governor, one of the state's most popular. His brother, Robert Jr., is the auditor general. Another brother, Matthew, a law student at Georgetown University, is running the campaign. In Pennsylvania, "The Caseys are the Kennedys of Pennsylvania without the booze and women. They don't have the scandals," said Terry Madonna, a professor of politics at Pennsylvania's Millersville University. Although the district has elected Republican Rep. Joseph M. McDade to 18 terms (he decided to retire at year's end), a Democrat could win in the Scranton-based district, especially one who is anti-abortion, anti-gun control and pro-labor, and has the last name of Casey.
- Idaho 2. Conservative Democrat Richard H. Stallings, who served in the House from 1985 to 1993, has a shot at returning by winning the seat vacated by Rep. Michael D. Crapo, who is running for the Senate. Stallings opposes abortion in the solidly Republican Idaho and may have an edge in a strongly Mormon state. Republican nominee Mike Simpson, the state House Speaker, is described by some political observers as a "jack Mormon," someone who is raised Mormon but infrequently follows the religion's rules on attending services and tithing. Stallings is a practicing Mormon.
- New Mexico 3. Republican Rep. Bill Redmond stunned the Democratic Party by winning the special election in this Democratic district in May 1997. Aiding the GOP cause was a Green Party candidate, Carol A. Miller, who captured 17 percent of the vote. Democrats in the June 2 primary sought to avoid a repeat of the special election. They rejected state corporation commissioner Eric P. Serna, who had lost to Redmond, and chose state Attorney General Tom Udall, whose record and family history -- he is a son of former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall -- should capture much of the environmental vote that would go to the Green Party candidate. Democrats, however, must contend with Redmond, a solid campaigner who has heeded the needs of his constituents during his brief tenure.
- Kentucky 4. The results of the May 26 primary improved the Democratic odds in this seat, held by Republican Rep. Jim Bunning, who is running for the Senate. Democrats chose Boone County Judge Executive Ken Lucas, a conservative who has won the backing of the "Blue Dog" and New Democratic coalitions in the House. Republicans nominated state Sen. Gex "Jay" Williams, a conservative backed by religious right stalwarts such as Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer and James Dobson.
- Alabama 4. Democrats have a name in this district with a strong labor presence: Don Bevill. His father, Tom, represented the district in the House from 1967 to 1997 and as chairman of the Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee brought plenty of projects home. Freshman Republican Rep. Robert B. Aderholt narrowly won in 1996 with 50 percent of the vote.
- California 49. In 1996, Democrats targeted Republican Rep. Brian P. Bilbray and he survived. This year, they have set their sights on him again, hoping that popular San Diego City Councilwoman Christine Kehoe can knock him off. Outside forces may play a major role in determining the outcome. In a local race that could have an impact, Democrat Howard Wayne is in a tough fight for the state assembly. Wayne's consultant, Gale Kaufman, was key in labor's defeat of Proposition 226, the union dues' consent measure, and Kaufman should have no trouble in getting labor to help in Waye's race, which could boost Kehoe.
- California 3. Republicans were favored to pick up this seat, held by Democratic Rep. Vic Fazio for the past 20 years (he decided to retire at the end of this Congress). The outcome of the June 2 primary significantly improves the GOP odds. Wealthy real estate developer Doug Ose defeated conservative Gary Bauer-backed candidate and state Rep. Barbara Alby to capture the Republican nomination. The Democratic candidate is Sandra "Sandie" Dunn, Fazio's choice.
- California 36. Democratic Rep. Jane Harman decided against re-election to pursue the governorship, a quest that proved unsuccessful. Her House seat was expected to be a GOP gain, and Republican prospects improved with the June 2 primary. Former Rancho Palos Verdes City Councilwoman Susan Brooks, who had failed in two tries against Harman, lost the GOP nomination to a fresh face, state Rep. Steve Kuykendall. Democrats, led by nominee Janice Hahn, will try to make an issue of Kuykendall's acceptance of a large tobacco contribution just before the 1994 election.
- Florida 3. Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown has been hit with a series of ethics charges, including allegations that her daughter received a luxury car from a West African businessman after the lawmaker lobbied to keep him out of a federal prison. Republicans think the charges will help their candidate, Bill Randall, a preacher and former president of the local chapter of the NAACP. (Brown, CQ Weekly, p. 1604)
- Georgia 2. If he can win the July 21 primary, political consultant Dylan Glenn is the Republican Party's next pinup. In a rare move, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., endorsed Glenn the week of July 6 to the dismay of some state GOP leaders and their candidate, Republican businessman Joe McCormick. Like the contest in Florida's 3rd District, Glenn vs. Democratic Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. would pit two African-Americans against each other.
- Hawaii 1. Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie is hampered by a poor economy in the island state and changing demographics that could help his GOP opponent, state House Minority Leader Quentin Kawananakoa. The Democratic governor, Benjamin J. Cayetano, also could falter, which would be a drag on the party's ticket. (Democratic Governors, p. 1870)
- Ohio 6. Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland narrowly won in 1996 after narrowly losing in 1994 in this swing district. Republicans increased their chances of recapturing the seat in the May 5 primary when they chose Lt. Gov. Nancy Hollister over former Rep. Ted Cremeans, who lost to Strickland in 1996. North Carolina 12. Three-term Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt has never had much trouble winning re-election, but a recently redrawn district will provide a serious test. Candidates were allowed to refile in the new 12th District, where 36 percent of the population is black, and a handful of Republicans and Democrats have shown interest. Among the challengers are state GOP Rep. Steve Wood and Republican City Councilman Mike Jackson. (North Carolina, CQ Weekly, p. 1751)
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