LOWELL, Mass. -- A bumper sticker here seems to tell it all. It reads: "This Fall Fire 'Em All -- Reelect Nobody."
There is something peculiarly appropriate in that particular slogan being displayed in the 5th Congressional District of Massachusetts, because this is the playing field for a classic test of the proposition that 1990 is a year in which incumbents are an endangered species simply because of their incumbency.
On the face of it, Democratic Rep. Chester Atkins, 42, should not be an easy target even in a district with a strong predilection for voting Republican in presidential elections. He won the seat narrowly in 1984 over a respectable Republican opponent, but he had no opposition at all two years later, and in 1988 captured 84 percent of the vote against a Libertarian Party opponent. Moreover, in his six years in the House, Atkins has won a reputation as a serious legislator and an effective inside player.
But in another sense, Chet Atkins fits the profile of the kind of incumbent who may be in trouble this year in the home state of Michael Dukakis. He has been the Democratic state party chairman since 1977, a political credential that has become a burden. And he has been a generally liberal advocate of activist government. Among other things, he has been strongly identified with policies that have brought a large number of Cambodian refugees to live in this economically distressed city.
The result is that Atkins is facing a challenge from John MacGovern, 39, a Republican state legislator, that Atkins is taking very seriously indeed. "It's the strangest political feeling I've ever had," Atkins says. "There are just, I would guess, about 40 percent or so of the electorate who are going to vote against anybody who's an incumbent. And there are some others who are taking a close look."
In national political terms, the operative question is whether this phenomenon is really as widespread as incumbents fear or simply the latest media craze, a fad that will not sustain itself when the voters actually cast their ballots Nov. 6. The answer seems to be that it is a little bit of both -- depending on the particular candidates involved and, more to the point, on the context in which particular campaigns are conducted.
Based on analyses of campaigns across the country, there are a few broad inferences that can be drawn.
First, there is some small, impossible-to-quantify segment of the electorate that believes the bumper sticker, a minority of voters who will tell you, as a caterer in Maryland said the other day, "I'm voting against whoever's in there now, right down the line."
Second, the reaction against incumbents is stronger and more pervasive in situations in which some event or individual has crystallized the anger against politicians. Here in Massachusetts, where the anti-incumbent mood was demonstrated so strikingly in primary voting last month, the crystallizing forces have been the state's fiscal problems and the perception that Dukakis and the liberal Democratic establishment have been to blame for them. In the District of Columbia, the force behind the new broom of Sharon Pratt Dixon was the reaction against Mayor Marion Barry. In Oregon, the threat to Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield seems based on the perception he has grown out of touch with his constituency. In several other states, particularly along the East Coast, the driving force is the economic recession.
Third, the incumbents in the least trouble are those with strong positive records of their own who have had the wit to understand they must take on their challengers and force the voters to consider whether the alternative is really a better choice. For all the great expectations of last spring, in both parties, at least 28 of the 35 Senate seats are now considered likely to remain in the hands of the party that now holds them. Although the situation may change rapidly in the final two weeks, the only incumbent senators who appear in serious peril are Democrat Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, who was appointed to the seat, Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts and two Republicans, Hatfield and Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
A more significant change is likely in state governorships -- principally in the direction of more Democrats -- because the economic slump has put so many of the states in a financial squeeze. The most endangered sitting governors are all Republicans -- Guy Hunt Jr. of Alabama, Bob Martinez of Florida, Mike Hayden of Kansas, John McKernan of Maine, Edward DiPrete of Rhode Island and Kay Orr of Nebraska. But there are some Democrats -- Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, for example -- who are not yet home free.
The best measure of the extent of the reaction should be the House, however. Because congressional races get so little press attention in comparison with those for the Senate or governorships, there is likely to be more generic voting -- ballots cast to make a point by voters who don't know much about either candidate.