The Senate Class of 1986

September 27, 1992

Freshman Sen. Kent Conrad startled his state of North Dakota and the Washington political establishment when he announced last April that he would not seek a second term. Why? He was popular at home and in the Senate. He had a big bankroll. Republicans had no strong candidate to run against him. At age 44 he seemed to have a long career ahead.

But when he ran for the seat in 1986 against incumbent Republican Sen. Mark Andrews, he promised not to seek re-election if Congress had not been able to reduce the budget deficit by 80 percent. Which, of course, it didn't.

But now he appears to be back in the race. Not for his own seat but for that held by Sen. Quentin Burdick, who died this month. That vacancy will also be filled at the polls this year. Senator Conrad is regarded as a certain nominee and a strong favorite to defeat any Republican, even if it is Mr. Andrews, whom he barely edged six years ago. North Dakotans love the integrity he displayed in sticking to his campaign promise -- and even more they love his fight to keep agriculture strongly and expensively supported by federal subsidies.

That in a nutshell explains the problem in Washington. Senators who are for budget discipline in general can't or won't be for it when it comes to home-state priorities. Even in this year of the revolt against incumbents in the House, senators seeking re-election are doing very well. Only one was defeated in primaries. Only a few are in any peril in the general election. To a large part this is due to their ability to bring home the bacon.

Interestingly, Democratic members of Senator Conrad's class o1986 are doing very well. Six years ago many were regarded as potentially one-term senators because they all had won in off-year elections, many by narrow margins. They foresaw running again in a presidential year in which a popular George Bush would be offering coattails to their opponents. How times have changed.

Of the eight freshmen Democrats running in 1992, all are favoreto be re-elected. Some, like Barbara Mikulski here, Bob Graham in Florida and Richard Shelby in Alabama, are practically prohibitive favorites. John Breaux in Louisiana isn't even opposed. The other freshmen are well ahead in the polls, but are facing aggressive Republicans who might change things in the next five weeks. (The Republican freshmen senators -- Christopher Bond in Missouri and John McCain in Arizona -- are favorites, too.)

The strength of the Democratic freshmen almost guarantees not only that Republicans will not achieve their dream of regaining control of the Senate in this year's election, but that they may even have a net loss of seats because of party weaknesses in other races.

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