BY JIM CULLEN
"Conventional Wisdom" inside the Beltway of Washington, D.C., appears to give the Democrats little chance of gaining the 20 seats in the House and the three seats in the Senate that they need to retake Congress in November. After all, once the Republicans moved into leadership of both chambers, corporate executives realized they would get more bang for their bucks with the GOP so they didn't have to spend money on the Democrats any more.
A study of PAC contributions by the Center for Responsive Politics, reported in the New York Times on Jan. 25, showed that for the first six months of 1995 more than 60 percent of the money went to members of the new Republican majority, reversing the pattern in the 1993-94 cycle, when the Democrats had control.
While 13 House Republicans already have announced they are retiring, 23 Democrats are packing it in, many of them frustrated not only with the loss of power, but also with the increasing rancor in Congress and the distaste for constant fundraising responsibilities. The cost of Senate and House races has risen dramatically in the past five years; in 1994, the average House seat cost $516,000, and the average Senate seat $4.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois said the problem of raising money was "a significant factor" in his decision to retire. Although he was fourth from the bottom in per-vote spending among senators, he still spent more than $8 million on his last campaign, the National Journal reported. Simon, and fellow senators Sam Nunn, D-Ga., Bill Bradley, D-N.J., and J.J. Exon, D-Neb., all used their retirement announcements to call for campaign finance reform.
Many of these retiring Democrats are moderate-to-conservative southerners from districts that have been trending Republican for years. The retirements of Democratic lawmakers creates opportunities for Republican challengers, although Democrats note that Republicans now hold 28 seats that have strong Democratic voting patterns.
The turnover is seen as ''a plus for business,'' GOP lobbyist Thomas C. Korologos told Business Week. Many of the departing Republicans are moderates, who stand to be replaced by GOP conservatives, is the thinking. They see improved prospects for tort reform, tighter caps on product-liability awards, inheritance tax relief, more business tax cuts, and repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires government contractors to pay union-level wages.
But the public also is showing signs of dissatisfaction with the extremism of the GOP legislative program, particularly with the budget cuts that threaten to dismantle health and welfare safety net programs, the tax cuts for the wealthy and corporate welfare programs. A recent New York Times/CBS News Poll showed 60 percent of those surveyed disapproved of Congress' performance, and 47 percent said they would vote for a Democratic Congressional candidate if the election were held today, while 40 percent would choose a Republican.
So the potential is there for a major turnover in Congress. Only 2 of 110 House seats in California, Illinois, Maryland and Texas were unchallenged as of the filing deadlines in those states. (Both the free rides were given to Texas Republicans, Sam Johnson of Dallas and Bill Archer of Houston.)
In four states whose filing deadlines had passed as of mid-January, the only alternative parties who have fielded candidates so far are the Libertarians, with challengers against Democrats Tom Lantos and Pete Stark in California, and the Natural Law Party, which fielded a candidate against Lantos. (Other parties may field candidates by nomination through their party conventions.)
Democrats need a net gain of at least three seats in the Senate, which Republicans now control, 53 to 47, after Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Wyden on Jan. 30 narrowly won the special election to suceed Bob Packwood, the Oregon Republican who resigned in disgrace in October.)
Democrats are considered at a disadvantage in the Senate races because eight of the 13 retiring senators are Democrats, and many of the open seats are from states that will be hard for the party to hold. Four open Southern seats being given up by Democratic incumbents--in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana--are considered vulnerable to Republicans. Since 1978, every retiring Senate Democrat in the South but one has been succeeded by a Republican.
Still, Democrats plan spirited battles against GOP incumbents in those states and elsewhere in the South, such as Virginia and the Carolinas.
Even in Texas a recent poll showed Phil Gramm vulnerable to a challenge from a group that includes progressive populist U.S. Rep. John Bryant and moderate U.S. Rep. Jim Chapman.
Other races to watch include Minnesota, where progressive Paul Wellstone, who won an upset victory in 1990, could face a tough rematch against the Republican he beat, Rudy Boschwitz; and Massachusetts, where incumbent John Kerry is expected to face GOP Gov. William Weld in what is expected to be this year's most expensive contest.
Democrats pin their hopes on
þ North Carolina, where polls once again show right-wing Sen. Jesse Helms vulnerable to a Democratic challenge that could turn into a rematch with former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt. But many insider Democrats are pulling for businessman Charlie Sanders, hoping to avoid a replay of the race-charged 1990 race which Helms narrowly won over Gantt, who is black.
þ South Carolina, where age will become an issue as 93-year-old Strom Thurmond seeks another term in the Senate.
þ Oregon, where the retirement of 30-year incumbent Mark O. Hatfield, a moderate Republican, gives Democrats another opportunity to pick up an open seat.
þ South Dakota, where progressive Democratic Rep. Tim Johnson, the state's only House member, takes on right-wing Sen. Larry Pressler.
þ Virginia, where incumbent John W. Warner is expected to be weakened by an intraparty feud dating to his refusal to back Oliver North in the state's 1994 Senate race.
House races to watch include:
Alabama 5th district: Ben Cramer (marginal district)
Calif. 3rd: Vic Fazio (redistricting problems)
Calif. 24th: (Open seat,. Anthony C. Beilenson retiring.
Calif. 36th: Jane Harman (narrow win in marginal district in 1994)
Florida 2nd: (Open seat, Pete Peterson retiring)
Mississippi 3rd: (Open seat, G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery retiring)
Montana, at large: (Open seat, Pat Williams retiring)
North Carolina 7th: Charlie Rose (marginal district)
Oregon, 1st: Elizabeth Furse (won by 301 votes in 1994)
South Dakota at large: (Open seat, Tim Johnson running for Senate)
Tennessee 6th: Bart Gordon (narrow victory in 1994)
Texas 1st (Open seat, Jim Chapman running for Senate)
Texas 2nd (Open seat, Charlie Wilson retiring)
Texas 5th: (Open seat, John Bryant running for Senate)
Texas 12th: (Open seat, Pete Geren retiring)
Arkansas 4th District: Jay Dickey (Democratic district)
Calif. 1st: Frank Riggs (Democratic district)
Calif. 22nd: Andrea Seastrand (won by 1,563 votes in 1994)
Calif. 49th: Brian Bilbray (won by 4,686 votes)
Illinois 5th: Michael Patrick Flanagan (Democratic district)
Iowa 4th: Greg Ganske (Democratic district)
Kentucky 1st: Edward Whitfield (won by 2,502 votes)
Louisiana 7th: (Open seat, Jimmy Hayes retiring)
Massachusetts 3rd: Peter Blute (Democratic district)
Massachusetts 6th: Peter Torkildsen (Democratic district)
Michigan 8th: Dick Chrysler (marginal district)
Nebraska 2nd: Jon Christensen (won by 1,766 votes)
Nevada 1st: John Ensign (won by 1,436 votes)
New Jersey 8th: Martini (won by 1,833 votes)
North Carolina 4th Heineman (won by 1,215 votes)
Ohio 6th: Cremeans (won by 3,422 votes)
Ohio 10th: Martin R. Hoke (marginally Democratic district)
Oklahoma 2nd: Tom Coburn (Democratic district)
Oregon 5th: Jim Bunn (Democratic district)
Pennsylvania 21st: Phil English (won by 4,643 votes)
Texas 9th: Steve Stockman (Democratic district)
Utah 2nd: Enid Greene Waldholtz (self-destructed)
Washington 2nd: Jack Metcalf (Democratic district)
Washington 3rd: Linda Smith (Democratic district)
Washington 5th: Nethercutt (3,983 votes)
Washington 9th: Randy Tate (won by 5,382 votes)
Wisconsin 1st: Mark Neumann (won by 1,120 votes)
Wisconsin 3rd: (Open seat, Steve Gunderson retiring)