WASHINGTON — The 1986 showdown for control of the U.S. Senate looms as one of the most fateful off-year election contests in recent history. And the most important event so far appears to be something that did not happen.
Not so many months ago, many economists expected the nation to plunge back into recession by 1986, and many Democrats were privately counting on an economic downturn to help them overcome the 53-47 advantage enjoyed by Republicans in the Senate.
But instead, the economy appears to be alive and well, and the statistical indicators, exults Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., the top White House political aide, "are almost too good to be true."
'Usually ... Goes Sour'
"It's been said that usually in the second year of the second term the economy goes sour," Vice President George Bush told Republicans last week. "It happened to Dick Nixon. It happened to Ike, to Harry Truman, and it happened to F.D.R." But, Bush vowed, "It's not going to happen to this President."
For the Democrats, the favorable prospects for the economy add to the pressures they face as they strive to take advantage of the favorable Senate math--22 of the 34 seats at stake in November are now held by Republicans--and bounce back from their 1984 election debacle.
The stakes are extremely high, Democratic leaders acknowledge. The nation's whole political system is in a state of flux, with both parties struggling to gain the upper hand, and the Democrats will have to wait years for the Senate arithmetic to be as much to their advantage as it is in 1986.
"If we don't win back the Senate, the analysts will say the Democrats are in decline--and they'll be right," concedes Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
If the presidency, as Theodore Roosevelt said, is a "a bully pulpit," then the Senate, in the hands of a resourceful opposition party, can be a mighty choir for sounding contrapuntal themes. Democrats are well aware that it was the Republican conquest of the Senate in 1980, as much as President Reagan's much-vaunted communications skills, that has made it possible for the President to dominate the national agenda.
By regaining control of the Senate and its committees, with their broad authority to legislate and investigate, the Democrats believe they can stem the tide of Reaganism and gain an early advantage in the struggle for the White House in 1988.
Could Be Beneficial
So far, the relative good health of the economy and the lack of any other widespread public grievance appear to deprive the Democrats of a potential campaign weapon. Nevertheless, some Democratic strategists argue that the absence of a national issue could actually turn out to be a benefit in some parts of the country.
When national issues dominate a campaign, according to this reasoning, Democratic candidates--particularly in the South and West--are often hindered by the interest group divisions and ideological baggage that have plagued the national party for the last two decades.
"The national Democratic Party is not in the political ballpark in most Western and Southern states," says Richard Moe, a former aide to 1984 Democratic standard-bearer Walter F. Mondale and now an adviser to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
Conversely, when national problems--and thus the national party--are pushed to the background, Democrats in each state can campaign on their own merits and pick and choose issues on which to focus. And despite the rosy state of the national economy, Democrats claim there is no dearth of local trouble spots.
"The favorable national economic figures mask substantial variations in many of the states," claims Paul Tully, executive director of the Fund for a Democratic Majority. A political action committee founded by Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the fund is backing Democratic Senate candidates in 12 states, including several experiencing serious local economic problems because of slumps in farming, mining, timber and oil.
"On the national level there may be a good feeling and the notion that government should just go away," Tully contends. "But none of the farmers in South Dakota are looking for government to go away."
History on Their Side
For whatever it is worth, the Democrats also appear to have history on their side, in the tradition of the so-called six-year itch. This is the tendency, whenever one party controls the White House for two terms, for voters to reject its candidates during the congressional elections in the middle of the second term. The itch is exemplified by the losses suffered by the GOP in 1958 and 1974 and the Democrats in 1938 and 1966.