Angry electorate retreats to familiar voting pattern

November 05, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- For House members, the voters' anti-incumbent bark was worse than their bite.

Political analysts and House leaders expected the angry electorate to send a post-World War II high of 150 new members to Congress, easily surpassing the 1948 figure of 112 incoming freshmen. Others said the turnover might surpass the century record of 165 new members in 1932.

But when the election night smoke cleared, 108 freshman lawmakers -- 64 Democrats and 44 Republicans -- were poised to set out for Capitol Hill in January. Although the largest class in four decades, it was far smaller than expected.

"When it came down to making the hard choice about their members, [voters] were surprisingly status quo," said Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington political analyst who kept a close eye on House races.

Despite grumbles about the House bank scandal, gridlock and pay raises, Mr. Rothenberg surmises that voters retreated to their age-old position: They dislike Congress, but they like their congressman.

"A lot of people thought that would change, but it didn't," said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia professor of government professor, who had projected 118 new members.

Twenty-four House incumbents were defeated -- 16 Democrats and 8 Republicans -- a figure far lower than in 11 other general elections since 1946. Ninety-three percent of House incumbents won re-election.

What was particularly curious about the House returns, Mr. Sabato said, was that while most voters re-elected their representatives, voters in 14 states backed term limits. "It's the old stop me before I vote again," he said. "It's like the alcoholic reaching for his bottle and voting for his congressman, but having the sense to call AA."

Still, the number of incumbent defeats in the general election was kept low by the primary losses of 19 lawmakers and the early retirements of 53 other House members. "Many of them saw the handwriting on the wall," said Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Democrats will have 259 House seats, a loss of nine, while the number of Republicans will rise from 166 to 175 seats in the 103rd Congress.

Although most incumbents survived nationwide, many found their margins of victory noticeably down from two years ago, perhaps a last gasp of anti-incumbent sentiment.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, re-elected from his Washington state district with 55 percent of the vote Tuesday, picked up 69 percent in 1990. And in Connecticut, GOP Rep. Nancy L. Johnson won a sixth term with 56 percent, two years after she took 74 percent of the vote.

Leaders in both parties pointed to President Bush as a reason for the small turnover in Congress.

One Republican leader said Mr. Bush's lackluster campaign was to blame for paltry GOP gains, and a top Democrat said the fewer-than-expected Democratic defeats meant that voters were content to make a change at the White House.

"It was the collapse of the presidential ticket that held us to the point where we missed what I felt was a historic opportunity," said Michigan Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, chairman of the Republican Congressional Committee, who himself was lTC defeated in a primary race. "I was not blowing smoke when I said there was a possibility of a Republican majority" in the House.

But Mr. Bush's drop in the polls and eventual loss amounted to a "national undertow" for GOP House candidates, Mr. Vander Jagt said. Republican strategists also sensed voters "were confused

about who ran the House," he said. "Because Bush was a Republican, many people thought that Republicans were running the House."

"Americans clearly voted in favor of change," said Rep. Vic Fazio, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who overcame a tough Republican challenge in his suburban Sacramento, Calif., district. "For some, change meant an end to gridlock; a Democratic Congress working with a Democratic president.

"To have kept our losses in the House to single digits is a feat beyond anything we thought possible."

Many incumbents were able to stave off defeat by hitting the campaign trail early and spending vast amounts of money, Mr. Rothenberg said.

Campaign spending for House races this year increased 38 percent from two years ago, to $233 million, according to the Federal Election Commission. The commission found that median spending for House Democrats rose by $100,000 and increased $64,000 for GOP lawmakers.

In Maryland, Mr. Hoyer was able to beat back a strong challenge by spending $1.3 million against GOP nominee Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., who devoted $177,000 to his anti-Congress campaign that included signs picturing a broom sweeping out the Capitol dome.

Even some members who had hundreds of overdrafts at the House bank were able to spend their way to victory. Democrat Ronald D. Coleman of Texas, who had 673 overdrafts, overcame a tough fight against Republican Chip Taberski by outspending him 3-to-1.

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