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House Incumbents Quaking As Angry Electorate Looks For Change

October 31, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The biggest earthquake in over half a century is coming to the House of Representatives on Tuesday, and incumbent lawmakers, once a secure elite, are on the defensive.

″This is a vicious, powerful anti-incumbent mood that is stronger than any of the party experts or the media have predicted,″ said Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, R-Mich., who speaks from experience. A House veteran and chairman of the party’s campaign committee, he was defeated in a primary election.

Polls across the nation show that voters, when asked whether they want to re-elect their current member of Congress or give a new person a chance, opt overwhelmingly for a fresh face.

″The key words are uncertainty and volatility,″ said Les Francis, executive director of the Democrats’ House campaign committee. New voters who come out to vote for independent presidential candidate Ross Perot are likely to be hostile to incumbents, and undecided voters are siding with anyone seen as an outsider to Washington.

For an object lesson, look at incumbent Republican Jim Ross Lightfoot of Iowa: He is running in a dramatically redrawn district, wrote 105 bad checks on the infamous House bank, and is opposed by a woman, Democratic secretary of state Elaine Baxter. No incumbent in the country is more vulnerable.

Both parties agree on one thing: Republicans stand to win marginal gains on Election Day, but nowhere near enough to erase the Democrats’ 38-year lock on the chamber.

The current balance stands at 266-166, with one independent and two vacancies. Observers put the likely Republican pickup at roughly a dozen seats, far fewer than the party had hoped for some months ago.

As public rage grows over government’s failures, the House bank escapade and congressional pay raises, junkets and ethical foibles, incumbent lawmakers feel like they are before a firing squad.

Already 65 House members - a modern record - have retired rather than face the voters this year. Another 19, also a record, have, like Vander Jagt, been defeated in primaries.

However incumbents fare on election night, it seems clear that the days of 98 percent re-election rates are past. The two parties’ campaign committees are nervously watching the fates of dozens of their incumbents, perhaps more than 100 in all.

″Most incumbents just can’t take it for granted this time,″ said Paul Ambrosino, a partner in a San Francisco firm that does direct mail campaigning for Democrats. Incumbency, once a big advantage, now imposes as much as a 10 percentage point drag on a candidate, he said.

″You’re going to see a lot of people upset who thought they couldn’t lose,″ Ambrosino said.

When the smoke clears, next year’s freshman class is likely to include 130 to 150 new faces. That would mark the biggest turnover since 1932, when 165 new House members took office along with Franklin Roosevelt. The new class also will be more diverse, with record numbers of women, blacks and Hispanics.

Topping the list of vulnerable Democratic incumbents are Reps. Mary Rose Oakar in Ohio; Ron Coleman, Albert Bustamante and Charles Wilson in Texas; Joseph Early and Nicholas Mavroules in Massachusetts; Earl Hutto in Florida; Gerry Sikorski in Minnesota; Romano Mazzoli in Kentucky, and Anthony Beilenson in California.

On the Republican side, Reps. Don Young in Alaska; Frank Riggs and John Doolittle in California; Hal Rogers in Kentucky; Tom Coleman in Missouri; Bob McEwen in Ohio; Olympia Snowe in Maine, and Bill Goodling in Pennsylvania are seen as the most endangered.

Many on that list also happen to be on the list of bad-check writers who have not yet received exoneration letters from the Justice Department.

Some of the chamber’s senior leaders are not much better off. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the House’s No. 2-ranking Republican, is locked in a close battle north of Atlanta; Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, faces a stiff challenge; and Democrat campaign chairman Vic Fazio, running in a redrawn California district, is given only a slight edge. Even Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., is experiencing some discomfort in his race.

A year ago, it looked like a promising season for Republicans. President Bush was riding high in the polls, the GOP was recruiting veterans of the Persian Gulf War to run for House seats and redistricting seemed to be paying dividends for the minority party. House scandals dominated the news, and the blame seemed easy to pin on the Democrats.

That promise has evaporated along with the glow of the Gulf War and the health of the nation’s economy.

Eleven new black lawmakers and six Hispanics will be elected from districts redrawn under the Voting Rights Act, and all but one are likely to be Democrats. Damage to adjoining Democratic districts, meanwhile, has been held to a minimum. And Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton provides an unaccustomed top-of-the ticket boost to the party’s candidates - especially those running in seats that are vacant because of retirements.

Democrats are finding, too, that running on Clinton’s issues - the economy, jobs, education, health care - often resonates more loudly with voters than the Republican focus on House scandals.

In some districts, House members are seeking to counter the tide with heavy spending. Fazio is expected to put more than $1 million into his re-election bid. House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., has raised a $2.6 million safety net. Gingrich, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D- Ill., and Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., each has raised more than $1 million.

Overall, the Federal Election Commission said total campaign spending by House candidates was up by 38 percent over the same time in 1990, increasing to $233 million. Perhaps most significant, Republican challengers tripled their spending and Democratic challengers doubled theirs from the levels of two years ago.

Redistricting has had another effect, as well. In five districts around the country, incumbents are pitted against each other: Democrat Pat Williams against Republican Ron Marlenee in Montana; Democrat Dave Nagle against Republican Jim Nussle in Iowa; Democrat Tom McMillen against Republican Wayne Gilchrest in Maryland; and in Louisiana Jerry Huckaby, a Democrat, faces Republican Jim McCrery; and Republicans Clyde Holloway and Richard Baker face off.

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