Senate resignations add uncertainty to elections ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

September 20, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- When an incumbent senator decides not to seek re-election, the leaders of his party usually fear that the vacancy will provide a golden opportunity for the opposition party to move in. Incumbents customarily build up political insulation as well as seniority, and the longer they remain in office, the harder it is to oust them.

This axiom can be thrown in the trash can in the cases of Republican Sen. David Durenberger of Minnesota and Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, who have just announced "a desire to return to private life." Both were under such clouds of scandal as to render them long shots for re-election, and few tears will be shed among their parties' leaders that they are calling it quits.

The Democrats will be able to field another, untainted candidate for the Arizona seat and the Republicans can now do likewise in Minnesota, but in neither case is either party out of the woods. Arizona is increasingly Republican, with the prospective GOP candidate, Rep. John Kyl, already the favorite. Minnesota's progressive tradition, and a long lineup of prominent Democratic prospects, indicate the GOP will have trouble holding onto Durenberger's seat.

Thus, the overall outlook for the dream of Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole for a Republican takeover of the Senate in 1994 probably is not significantly changed by the DeConcini and Durenberger retirements. Dole had been counting on picking up the Arizona seat anyway, and even if a Republican is elected to succeed Durenberger, the GOP will still need six additional Senate pickups to turn the current Democratic majority of 56-44 to a 51-49 Republican edge.

Also, two of the three other incumbents retiring are Republicans -- John Danforth of Missouri and Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming -- so their seats will have to be defended as well in the drive for a Republican Senate. Danforth had been considered near-certain of re-election, but Wallop was a big question mark, having survived in 1988 by a mere 1,322 votes out of nearly 181,000 cast. If former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, a former Wyoming House member, or his wife, Lynne, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, were to run, either would be rated a stronger vote-getter than Wallop.

The Democrat retiring is Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, who won 57 percent of the vote in his last two re-elections but at age 76 might have been vulnerable in that swing state. The Republicans are now targeting Ohio along with their two best shots for gains -- New Jersey against incumbent Democrat Frank Lautenberg and Virginia, where retiring Democratic Gov. Doug Wilder says he will challenge Democratic Sen. Charles Robb and where Iran-contra figure Oliver North looms as the Republican challenger against the survivor.

Durenberger's decision, in the wake of a formal denouncement by the Senate and indictment on charges of defrauding the government, was no shocker. But DeConcini had been battling to survive his identification as the principal member of the "Keating Five" -- the senators accused of unethical assistance to financier Charles Keating, the convicted central figure in the S&L scandal.

DeConcini also enraged liberal Democrats by voting for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. But after much theatrics he cast one of the deciding votes for President Clinton's deficit-reduction package -- winning a promise of extra national party help in his expected re-election bid. That help was extended, however, without much conviction that DeConcini could survive anyway.

While Durenberger's decision was no surprise, it was a sad end to what had started promisingly in 1978 when he was elected to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Democrat Hubert Humphrey. A moderate in the Reagan era, he became a strong voice for health-care reform and was regarded as a comer until personal troubles sent him skidding.

With anti-incumbency being fanned by Ross Perot and others, and term limitation increasingly in vogue, other incumbents facing tough re-election fights, either for votes cast or allegations of improper conduct, are likely to follow the Durenberger-DeConcini route in the year ahead.

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