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'90 Vote Offers GOP Big Chance to Score Gains

February 21, 1989|ROBERT SHOGAN | Times Political Writer

WASHINGTON — The intensive comings and goings at Washington's staid old University Club earlier this month might well have caused unease among the security detail next door at the Soviet Embassy.

In fact, a plot of sorts was being hatched behind the club's brick walls, where nonstop brainstorming went on for the better part of two days. But the scheme was not aimed at the Kremlin. Rather, the 30 or so top-level Republican strategists who gathered in a second-floor meeting room were drafting a battle plan for the 1990 election and the rest of the decade.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 23, 1989 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 National Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
A map in Tuesday editions illustrating party affiliations of U.S. governors was incorrect on six states. The correct party affiliations for those states are Indiana--Democrat; Nevada--Democrat; New Hampshire--Republican; Vermont--Democrat; Virginia--Democrat; West Virginia--Democrat.

"We wanted to be somewhere where we could easily be bugged," Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, planner of the get-together, quipped about the proximity to the embassy.

But no one was joking about the ultimate goal of the session: to overturn Democratic Party dominance of Congress and statehouses and clear the way for a partisan realignment that would at last make the GOP the nation's majority party.

Chasing Dream

Republicans have been chasing this realignment dream for nearly two decades. But as they look toward the 1990 elections, they realize that they now face what Lee Atwater, President Bush's choice as new party chairman, describes as "a historic opportunity."

To some analysts, it appears that this election presents the Republicans with their best remaining chance before the end of the century to move ahead of the Democrats, who the polls show still hold an advantage in party identification.

That is because the 1990 vote for state and local offices will decide which party is better positioned to take advantage of the population shifts from Frost Belt to Sun Belt that will be recorded in that year's census. These anticipated changes could have profound political consequences, particularly for the balance of power in the House of Representatives, where the Democrats have exercised almost unbroken control for more than half a century.

Another factor energizing the Republican preparations for 1990 is the outlook and background of the new man in the Oval Office. As a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, President Bush, unlike his predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, makes no pretense of being nonpolitical.

Bush campaigned in 47 states in the 1986 midterm election, notes White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater: "I bet you dollars to doughnuts he'll be a very active participant in the (1990) off-year elections."

Of course, the Democrats do not plan on being passive themselves in the 1990 campaign. The long-range stakes are high for both parties as each tries to extend its reach in the present split-level political system, where the Republicans dominate the presidency and the Democrats appear to hold an edge at almost every other level.

"We've got to start putting together a coalition of states which will enable us to win the White House in 1992," says Tim Dickson, executive director of Project 500, a Democratic campaign group that has been planning for the 1990 shoot-out for five years.

Both parties are gearing up for a multimillion-dollar, no-holds-barred fight over the drafting of new congressional district lines based on the 1990 census, particularly in states that will gain or lose House seats.

On the face of it, the change should benefit the GOP. About 18 seats are expected to shift from Frost Belt states, where Democrats are relatively strong, to the Sun Belt, where Republicans by and large have been on top.

But Republicans are still smarting from Democratic gerrymandering after the 1980 census, particularly in California, where they claim to have been redistricted out of five House seats. They are determined not to be undone again in the next decade.

"Thirty years of gerrymandering by the Democrats has nearly locked in Democratic majority control, with a capital 'D,' of the U.S. House of Representatives," Atwater told national committee members last month. "If we want to be the majority party in Congress, we must have a very strong Republican role in drawing new district lines after the census."

But even many Republicans have begun to realize that rigging district lines is only part of their problem and redrawing them only part of the solution. This was evidenced at the strategy session at the University Club.

"There was the first recognition I've heard at a Republican meeting that even if we won all the gerrymandering issues before legislatures, it would not result in Republican control of Congress," says one participant, New Right leader Paul Weyrich.

Influential GOP consultant Eddie Mahe, who also attended the University Club strategy session, notes that Republicans have elected fewer senators and governors than Democrats, though in neither case are elections influenced by the shape or size of election districts.

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