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Lack of National Issue Colors House Campaigns : Neither Party Expects Emphasis on Local Concerns to Result in Major Upsets

October 26, 1986|KAREN TUMULTY | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — National partisan tides carried North Carolina Republican Bill Hendon to Congress in 1980, swept him out of office two years later and carried him back in 1984. But this year, as he faces Democrat Jamie Clarke for a third time, the country's political waters are unusually still.

Hendon is featuring top Administration officials in his advertising, as he did in 1984. But instead of aligning himself with President Reagan's team directly, he shows how he has brought such figures as Vice President George Bush and Energy Secretary Donald P. Hodel to his district to persuade the Administration not to locate a nuclear waste dump there.

Without Reagan at the top of the ticket, as he was in 1980 and 1984, or nationwide economic turmoil as severe as the 1982 recession that cost Republicans 26 seats, candidates in hundreds of House districts across the country are focusing on local problems and individual records.

Historical Pattern

And, lacking a national theme, unknown opponents are finding it more difficult to make a case for unseating entrenched incumbents. As a result, neither party is predicting major upsets, despite a historical pattern of heavy losses for any President's party in the sixth year of his Administration.

This year, political analysts have predicted, Republicans could lose as many as 20 seats in the House, but this still would be far short of the 53-seat average suffered by the party in power in the last four elections that occurred midway through a President's second term. Nevertheless, it would leave Republicans even more outnumbered in the chamber, where they trail the Democratic majority by 253 to 180.

Not Many Seats to Lose

The Republicans may be able to keep their losses relatively low because, in part, they do not have that many seats to lose. Reagan's huge reelection victory in 1984 carried only 14 GOP House members in with him, 10 of them in North Carolina and Texas.

Low Turnout Expected

A factor that could generate surprising results is the relatively low turnout expected for House races, particularly in areas where no hotly contested senatorial or gubernatorial race is at the top of the ticket.

"This is getting very close to being an election that nobody is going to come to," GOP strategist Eddie Mahe said. "Nobody is going to vote this year. Everybody is going to stay home."

What this means is that high participation by small factions could swing some marginal races. And the voters' apathy persists in spite of the fact that their regions are suffering serious problems.

The Midwest, for example, is still struggling under the farm depression. In states such as North Carolina, thousands of jobs have been lost to overseas competition. And oil-producing states have been devastated by falling energy prices.

In those areas, Democrats are still betting they can turn Reagan's economic program into a weapon against Republicans.

"In the last three weeks, all the polls have shown the economy has really taken over," said Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It's starting to show in a lot of statewide polls. It's starting to happen."

Both parties will be spending heavily in the final days of the campaigns. Joseph R. Gaylord, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said: "You're going to be hearing a lot from our side," particularly stressing military strength and suggestions that Democrats may press for a tax increase next year.

Democrats, meanwhile, will continue pushing their economic messages, centering on the trade deficit and the agricultural crisis.

While voters may be uneasy about the economy, it still is not clear whether their fears will make a difference in congressional races.

North Carolina, for example, is cited as one of the best Democratic prospects because of the thousands of jobs its textile industry has lost to foreign competition. Only two years after Reagan carried the state by a wide margin and brought four Republican congressmen in with him, he is being blamed for its economic problems. In particular, workers are saying he should abandon his free-market philosophy when it comes to international trade.

"If we don't get some kind of import-export control, we're going to lose jobs," said Charlie McDowell, president of the local paper worker's union in Haywood County. "We're beginning to feel the pinch. The company is claiming the profit margins are down. If we wait too long, it will be like textiles. We'll have lost thousands of jobs before they try to do anything about it."

But this anger at the White House, political strategists say, may not be enough to elect Democrats to Congress.

"A lot of people thought, coming into '86, that this was going to be a send-them-a-message referendum on textiles. I don't think that's developed," said Mark Longabaugh, campaign manager for former Rep. Robin Britt.

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