WASHINGTON — Despite President Reagan's persisting popularity, many Republican House candidates are disavowing his policies as they strive to buck the odds and maintain their numbers in November's congressional elections.
In Midwestern states hit by a farm depression, in the Southwest where falling world oil prices have caused heavy layoffs and in other regions that have not shared in the general prosperity following the 1981-82 recession, Democrats are hammering President Reagan's free trade-free market economic policies while GOP candidates are busy disassociating themselves from those policies.
In a highly visible measure of that disassociation, 59 Republican congressmen joined 236 Democrats Thursday to pass an omnibus trade bill that Reagan has threatened to veto on the grounds that it is overly protectionist.
The strategy of distancing themselves from the President on such politically sensitive subjects is expected to succeed enough to prevent Republicans from suffering the huge losses that traditionally beset the party in power during the sixth year of a presidential term. Joseph Gaylord, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the GOP is still fighting hard to keep alive its hopes of displacing the Democrats as the nation's majority party.
"If we get our butts kicked," he admitted, "people are going to say, 'It's over, folks.' "
California Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, acknowledged that he does not expect Democrats to gain more than 10 or 15 House seats in November--far fewer than the 48-seat gain that is the historical average for an opposition party in the sixth year of a presidency.
But even that, Coelho insisted, will disprove the GOP's claim that it is becoming the majority party--especially if the Democrats reclaim some of the seats they lost in the South two years ago during the Reagan presidential sweep.
"Realignment is dead," Coelho said. "Ronald Reagan is very popular in the South. But Ronald Reagan couldn't transfer his personal popularity into party popularity."
And Democrats believe that the Republican Party could be in serious trouble beginning in 1988, when Reagan will be retiring and GOP candidates no longer will be able to trade on his personal mystique. Ed Martin, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said: "Realignment's a myth without Ronald Reagan at the top of the ticket."
Overall, November's elections are not expected to work dramatic changes in the makeup of the House, which currently has 252 Democrats, 182 Republicans and one vacancy.
The challengers in this year's House sweepstakes include two members of the Kennedy family; former congresswoman and feminist leader Bella Abzug; Ben Nighthorse Campbell, an American Indian who headed the 1964 U.S. Olympic judo team; actor Fred Grandy, who plays "Gopher" on the television show "The Love Boat," and Tom McMillen, former Washington Bullets basketball player.
In Massachusetts, Joseph Kennedy, the 33-year-old son of Robert F. Kennedy, is running for the House seat being vacated by House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. His sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, 34, is trying to unseat first-term Rep. Helen Delich Bentley (R-Md.).
A Woman Will Win
Women are not expected to increase their numbers in the House, however, and may suffer a net loss. Four of the 23 women House members are retiring--two to run for the Senate--and women's groups see little likelihood that four more women can be elected in November.
Likewise, the number of black House members may not rise significantly. The likeliest gains are in Atlanta, where two prominent civil rights leaders--State Sen. Julian Bond and City Council President John Lewis--are competing for a seat currently held by a white, and in Mississippi, where Mike Espy, a black lawyer, is trying to become the state's first black congressman.
Among the most strongly contested races will be a rerun of the bitter 1984 battle between Democrat Frank McCloskey and Republican Richard D. McIntyre in Indiana, which was so close that it had to be decided by the House itself. Republicans accused the Democratic majority of a raw political power grab in naming McCloskey the winner.
A Nasty Idaho Race
A nasty race is also developing in Idaho, where Democratic Rep. Richard H. Stallings may be challenged by the wife of the man he defeated two years ago, Rep. George Hansen. Stallings won by only 170 votes in 1984, even though Hansen was running after a felony conviction for filing false financial disclosure statements.
Republicans contend that Stallings is too liberal for their conservative district, even though he supports Reagan on many issues. Some have even circulated a picture of Stallings with liberal actress Jane Fonda, implying a friendship between them. Actually, the photo was taken when Fonda testified before a House committee on which Stallings serves.