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Choosing 34 Senators: Will Republicans Prevail?

June 01, 1986|Richard E. Cohen | Richard E. Cohen is congressional correspondent for the National Journal.

WASHINGTON — On the eve of Tuesday's primary election, national Republican leaders are hoping California voters will pick a strong candidate to oppose Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston in November. With Republicans holding a Senate edge of only 53-47, party chiefs see the primary winner as having a good chance to beat Cranston and provide what could be the margin for continued Republican control of the Senate.

In fact each of this year's 34 Senate races carries equal importance in determining which party wins the Senate showdown. But if you listen to the candidates and party officials, you might conclude that the contests will have about as much national relevance as a local sheriff's race.

Democrats are pinning their hopes on the personal vulnerabilities of several Republican incumbents and are wary of nationalizing the election. Mindful of a generally favorable economy and Reagan's ability to put the most favorable spin on national conditions, they are taking a parochial approach that caters to regions and groups suffering the pinch--energy, agriculture and textiles among them.

The GOP, likewise, will have no national theme. There are "no overarching major issues," Republican National Committee Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. said recently. Instead, Republicans hope to succeed with superior technical skills and a big advantage in campaign money.

The focus on individual races and strategies may explain why insiders from both parties agree that the battle for Senate control could go either way or, perhaps, end with each party holding 50 seats. Unpredictable factors such as the quality of a candidate's television advertising, campaign management or a passing comment in an October debate will undoubtedly affect results in several states.

If the GOP retains control, it will be well positioned to keep it for the next decade. Just as they proved vital to the 1980 outcome, the 15 Republican first-termers on this year's ballot will be pivotal. But there is an important change, in addition to the fact that they must face the voters this time without the benefit of Ronald Reagan on the ballot. As challengers six years ago, most Republicans succeeded by bashing Jimmy Carter's economic and foreign policies or by clinging to Reagan themes when they defeated Democratic incumbents. In the immediate flush of victory, they gave nearly unqualified support to Reagan's 1981 spending and tax-cut proposals. Now they are playing a different but familiar tune, stressing their deeds for constituents and pledging to keep up the fight on their behalf--a tried-and-true route for political success and an illustration of the adage that "all politics is local." If the result puts an incumbent into conflict with Reagan, so be it.

Even some of the most conservative Republicans have gone out of their way to find issues on which they can line up against the President. Their model is Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley, who was elected in 1980 as a card-carrying Reagan loyalist, but since then has led critics of wasteful Pentagon spending and has been a thorn in the side of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. That may explain why Grassley is a cinch for reelection in a farm-based state experiencing a virtual depression, and where all four senators who have sought a second term since 1972 have been defeated.

Sen. Robert W. Kasten Jr. (R-Wis.), to cite another example, was an early adherent of "supply-side" economics. But when it comes to the needs of his Democratic-leaning state, he has proven as adept as any senator in demanding more spending for programs Reagan has tried to eliminate, such as revenue sharing and urban development grants.

The fact that eight of the 15 GOP first-termers received less than 52% of the vote in 1980 should leave Democrats plenty of opportunities. Among those targets are three Republican neighbors from the South--Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, Mack Mattingly of Georgia and Paula Hawkins of Florida--where GOP leaders believe the party has gained strength by attacking national Democrats as too liberal.

Polls show Hawkins trailing her opponent, popular Democratic Gov. Robert Graham, although that contest will probably tighten once Hawkins recuperates from recent back surgery. Mattingly supporters claim their man is in good shape, with the luxury of waiting out a multicandidate Democratic primary this summer. Denton has led Rep. Richard C. Shelby, the most active Democrat challenger, in several statewide polls.

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