WASHINGTON — The defeat of a conservative Democratic incumbent in Tuesday's Maryland primary may bring the same message to Capitol Hill that George Bush has been receiving: Many voters are unhappy and intend to vent their displeasure when casting their ballots.
The primary loss by Rep. Beverly B. Byron--a 14-year incumbent whose late husband, father-in-law and mother-in-law held the seat before her--is being viewed by some analysts as a warning shot across the bow of incumbents, even those who believe they have an election-safe district.
"Incumbents have got to be very aware of the level of anger and deep-seated feelings that people have," said Peter Fenn, whose Fenn & King Communications works exclusively for Democratic candidates to public office.
Tony Blankley, press secretary to House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), called Byron's defeat "a harbinger of things to come."
"There was nothing new about her positions, but there was something new about the mood of her constituency," Blankley said. "It is an example of the public's frustration with the incumbency."
But David Dreyer, communications director for House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), said the loss demonstrates voter demand for political activism, not a blanket rejection of all incumbents.
"I find it difficult to believe that this thing will be about incumbency," Dreyer said. "It will be about Democrats vs. Republicans, and it will be about issues and status quo versus change. Whichever party becomes the vehicle for change, it will have a powerful reelection argument in the fall."
Regardless, many longtime and influential lawmakers, unaccustomed to challenges from political upstarts, are taking to the hustings and organizing campaign staffs in an effort to keep their seats.
Among those are Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), who was first elected to Congress in 1954 and is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who came to Washington in 1958, and Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the organization charged with helping incumbent Democrats stay in office.
In some cases, the potential problems for such incumbents arise from the redrawing of political boundaries to reflect the 1990 census. But the anti-incumbent mood also is a factor in their reelection preparations.
Byron was the first congressional incumbent to falter in a primary race this year.
Her conservative district, fashioned from the western corner of the state and the rural fringes of the Baltimore and Washington suburbs, has sent Byron family members to Congress since World War II. Byron won the seat after her husband, Goodloe, who was elected in 1970, died in 1978. Goodloe Byron's mother and father had represented the district in the 1940s.
Beau Wright, Byron's press secretary, said the incumbent's defeat by Thomas H. Hattery by a 56% to 44% margin came as a shock because she was widely hailed for her productive service to constituents. He said her record of constituent service and her past election successes prevented her from noticing that changes were occurring within the district, creating an opportunity for Hattery, he said.
Hattery, a 38-year-old Maryland state legislator, ran a strong media campaign, contending that Byron had demonstrated a lack of concern for issues important to voters, such as health care and the economy. His advertisements also attacked her stands against abortion rights and her vote to increase congressional salaries.
Byron refused to strike back.
"She didn't run a campaign," said one Democratic political strategist. "She felt that since she had been in Congress for 14 years, she didn't need to do a damn thing. She didn't have a pollster, a media adviser or much of a staff to give her advice. I don't think she took the campaign seriously."
Fenn said nobody should be surprised by Byron's loss. His firm sent a memo to Democrats last year, warning them of "a freight train of anti-incumbent feeling" heading their way in 1992.
In the memo, Fenn predicted, "The incumbent candidates who will lose are those who fail to understand the growing cynicism with Washington, get caught in communicating an ineffectual message or none at all, and who insist in believing that, 'They really don't have a race.' "