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Handful of Seats Could Sway Battle Over House

Congress: As few as two dozen hotly contested races, including several in California, are crucial in deciding whether GOP can maintain tenuous majority.

January 17, 2000|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Five years after Republicans brashly stormed Washington and took command of Congress, a humbled GOP enters this election year at risk of losing control of the House--a prized bastion of legislative power that could help or hobble whoever becomes president.

Although national political debate has been dominated by the voices of presidential candidates, Republicans around the country have quietly armed for an equally intense fight to preserve their wafer-thin majority in the House in the 2000 vote.

"Of course I'm nervous," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "I think we ought to hold [the House], but you know, funny things happen along the way."

The outcome is as uncertain as a coin toss, and the stakes are huge. The party that controls the House has a powerful hand in charting the course of federal policy for the next two years, grappling with such overarching issues as how best to use the burgeoning federal surplus, how to reform Social Security for retiring baby boomers and how U.S. trade policy should evolve in the global economy.

But what makes the 2000 House election unique--and has turned it into a fur-flying dogfight--is that the battlefield for this grand engagement is extraordinarily small. Most incumbents are safely entrenched and face little or no serious opposition.

Strategists from both parties say that as few as two dozen of the 435 House seats--including a handful in California--will be the only ones seriously contested.

But on that postage stamp of political real estate the shape of the entire House will be determined.

"A lot of money will flow to a relative handful of seats," said Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. "In those seats, it's nuclear war. Twenty miles away, there's nothing."

Both parties are arming to the teeth. Donations are pouring in like iron filings to a magnet. Party leaders have been pleading with potentially strong candidates to run and for veterans to stay. GOP leaders, for instance, begged Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.) to change his mind after he announced his retirement (he declined). House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) called a potential candidate in California from the U.S. ambassador's residence in Zimbabwe, persuading the prospect to run for the House the day before the state's filing deadline.

The GOP is expected to enjoy its traditional advantage in fund-raising. The party also hopes that the lead in the polls currently enjoyed by its likely presidential nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, means that the political winds will be at their backs. And, given the small number of competitive districts, Republicans argue that it will be harder than it looks for Democrats to gain the five seats they need to take back the House.

"Picking up the last five seats is like picking up yardage inside the 10-yard line," said NRCC Chairman Davis.

But a daunting array of handicaps makes the Republican grip on power especially tenuous. Its House majority is the slimmest either party has had since 1954. Meanwhile, Democrats are cutting into the GOP's financial edge with a record-smashing fund-raising effort. Finally, more than three times as many GOP House members are either retiring or giving up their seats for higher office than is the case with Democrats.

Even die-hard Republican partisans acknowledge that this disparity is a major problem because it is usually much harder for parties to hold on to an open seat than to reelect an incumbent.

"That's a terrific advantage for Gephardt," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "I believe that [the Republican presidential nominee] is going to have to win by a pretty decisive margin to keep the House Republican."

Republicans also will be battling to retain control of the Senate, but their cushion in that chamber--55 seats compared with the Democrats' 45--is considered much more secure. The breakdown in the House is 222 Republicans, 212 Democrats and one Independent--Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont--who would be expected to support the Democrats as majority party.

Thus, picking up five seats this November would achieve for the party the magic number--218--it needs to gain back the power it wielded for most of the 20th century and lost in the 1994 elections.

Republican control of Congress brought Gingrich to power, the budget into balance and conservative social issues such as abortion limits and school vouchers into focus. Also, with the GOP in charge, the drive to impeach President Clinton passed the House and proceeded to trial in the Senate early last year.

The 2000 House elections will be fought, in part, as a referendum on the Republican policy agenda and the GOP's treatment of Clinton.

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