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Voters Who Axed House Speaker Tom Foley Reassess GOP Revolution

October 21, 1996

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) _ Two years ago, Steward Smith helped make history. He joined other disgruntled voters in booting out Tom Foley, the first U.S. House speaker unseated since 1860.

Smith, a 50-year-old city employee who once supported Foley, thought the government needed shaking up, and the Republicans were promising to do it with their ``Contract With America.″ He waited eagerly for the contract to kick in.

He’s still waiting, and he’s more disgruntled than ever. The contract was ``a smoke screen,″ he says, and the government plods on as usual.

``The public wanted a change,″ Smith said recently. ``I don’t think we got real change.″

Will dissatisfied voters like Steward Smith change the face of Congress again? National Democratic leaders certainly hope so _ and as they seek to regain the House majority they lost in 1994, Washington state has become a prime battleground.

Washington voters took the ``Contract With America″ to heart two years ago and sent six GOP freshmen to the House, more than any other state. Now those six Republicans are fending off the same charges that toppled their Democrat predecessors: Party-line loyalties have put them out of touch with mainstream voters.

``The advantage the Republicans had in 1994 was that they had a bunch of new faces. Now they’re old faces,″ said Steven Stehr, a political scientist at Washington State University. ``They’re the insiders, and the perception is that things haven’t gotten demonstrably better.″

Here in the state’s 5th District, Spokane attorney George Nethercutt drew national attention in 1994 by ending Speaker Foley’s 30-year career in Congress. The giant-killer now faces a stiff challenge from wheat farmer Judy Olson, a political novice.

Each strives to be the folksy outsider, more at home in eastern Washington’s rolling wheat fields and forested hills than in ``the other Washington.″

``I am a wife, a mother, a farmer. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a politician,″ Olson, 50, said at the start of a televised debate with Nethercutt this month.

``Call me George,″ Nethercutt, 52, tells constituents. Though he has voted faithfully with GOP leaders, he’s kept them at arm’s length while campaigning.

``My opponent would love nothing more than to have Newt Gingrich come in and campaign for me,″ Nethercutt said in an interview. ``I want to be elected on what I believe and on my record.″

Olson, a former president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, accuses Nethercutt of abandoning farmers by reneging on a promise to seek a seat on the Agriculture Committee. He says he can do more for farmers on Appropriations.

Other issues split along standard party lines: Olson hammers Nethercutt for cutting Medicare; he says he voted only to slow its growth in order to save it. She says Republicans tried to gut environmental laws under the guise of regulatory reform; he says he wants to ``balance environmental protection with fiscal responsibility.″

If not for all the outside attention, their spirited face-off might be just another local race.

Democratic Party leaders need a net gain of 18 seats nationwide to regain the House majority and have put all six Washington campaigns involving GOP freshmen on their list of 50 hottest races.

National labor and environmental groups also have weighed in. According to a tally by GOP leaders, the AFL-CIO spent $1.7 million by mid-September on TV ads attacking Republican freshmen in Washington state _ 17 percent of the labor union’s television buy nationwide from April until September. The union says the numbers should be smaller but has no specifics.

The vulnerability of Washington’s GOP freshmen showed last month in the state’s open primary, in which voters choose one candidate regardless of party.

In suburban Puget Sound, Rep. Randy Tate was outpolled 49 percent to 48 percent by his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Adam Smith. In southwestern Washington, Rep. Linda Smith drew 52 percent against unknown Brian Baird, a psychology professor who had never run for office.

Nethercutt got 51 percent of his district’s primary vote. Olson and two other Democrats split the rest.

State Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt predicts Democrats will reclaim at least three of Washington’s House seats. State GOP leaders predict none will cross over, noting their freshman incumbents fared better in the primary than their Democratic predecessors did in the 1994 primary. Foley got only 35 percent of that primary vote.

In the absence of Foley’s seniority and ability to bring home the bacon, the voters’ choice here this year is a simpler matter of Democratic vs. Republican ideologies.

Olson can hope that GOP turnout will be hurt by a why-bother attitude among Republican voters dispirited about Bob Dole’s chances against President Clinton. Nethercutt, meanwhile, enjoys an advantage as a Republican incumbent in a conservative-leaning district.

``For better or worse,″ Nethercutt said, ``I’ve done what I said I would do.″

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EDITOR’S NOTE _ David Foster is the AP’s Northwest regional reporter, based in Seattle.

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