A Bellweather Year for Republicans

August 25, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

Aiken, S.C. -- In this shady city and across South Carolina's Third Congressional district, a piece of Bill Clinton's national nightmare may be taking shape. Has there ever been a Republican congressman here?

''Not without guns,'' answers the Republican candidate, Lindsey Graham. ''It took the Union Army.'' Reconstruction, 1877. But Graham may get to Congress saying, ''I'm one less vote for an agenda that makes you want to throw up.''

This district is a strip of recalcitrance running along Georgia's border up to North Carolina's. John Calhoun lived north of here, Strom Thurmond was born down the road. Recalcitrance, meaning resentment of Washington and regret about the tone of American life, is now called conservatism and is obligatory for candidates here. Of the two Democrats who competed in a primary run-off to be his opponent, Mr. Graham says, ''There is not a Republican in Congress more conservative than they talk.''

The district has had just two congressmen in 44 years. The seat is being vacated by Butler Derrick, a 10-term Democrat from the 1974 ''Watergate'' class.

Two years ago he won a 61 percent landslide. This year prospective opponents had, and assume he had, polls showing him vulnerable. Washington probably wonders why, given that as one of his party's whips he is part of the House Democratic leadership. That is why.

The Democrats' 1992 ''two Bubbas'' ticket (well, Bubbas from Yale and Harvard), the first all-Southern presidential ticket since Jackson-Calhoun in 1828, was supposed to reverse Democrats'

fading fortunes in Dixie. This fall could help produce a House of Representatives effectively controlled by Republicans.

But the Clinton-Gore ticket carried only four Southern states while Republicans were making a net gain of eight House seats in the South. And Mr. Graham says Mr. Clinton's presidency has brought the Democrats' decline ''to Star Trek speed.''

This actually is a tale of a long tide. In 1948 Strom Thurmond,

then South Carolina's Democratic governor, ran a Dixiecrat campaign for president. In 1952 this town supported Eisenhower.

In 1964 Mr. Thurmond, by then a senator, became a Republican and South Carolina supported Barry Goldwater. In 1974 it elected its first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

In congressional races, the Third District stayed Democratic because the incumbents served local textile interests and traditional pork barrel politics, and because they were not blamed for national Democratic tendencies. But today Southern Democrats are an endangered species because Tip O'Neill's axiom that ''all politics is local'' is no longer true. Congressional 00 races are being nationalized.

Mr. Graham, a 39-year-old state legislator, thinks the road to Congress may run through a coronary clinic because it involves so many picnics and barbecues, but he is sure that road involves running straight against Bill Clinton on such issues as homosexuals in the military. Mr. Graham, an Air Force veteran and a major in the reserves, says the military is more important to third district voters than a congressman's help getting the church parking lot paved, particularly when church values seem threatened. On health care and crime legislation, he says the local attitude is, ''If he [Clinton] is for it, I'm against it.''

Asked to name a national Democratic figure who could help his opponent by campaigning for him, Mr. Graham can only think of Education Secretary Richard Riley, a former governor of this state. What national Republican could help Mr. Graham here? Lots of them, he says, but especially Colin Powell (who may not be a Republican).

This fall could help produce a House of Representatives effectively controlled by Republicans. There is an inexorably rising Republican tide in the South, where Republicans held a higher percentage of congressional seats after George Bush's defeat in 1992 than after Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980.

In 1992, 53 Democrats across the nation won with 55 percent or less, which is one reason why in 1994 there are 49 open seats -- seats with no incumbent running. Thirty are currently held by Democrats. Eighteen open seats are in the South (counting Kentucky and Oklahoma) and 13 of them are now held by Democrats.

Even before the Democratic disarray regarding crime and health legislation, Democratic defections from Mr. Clinton on last year's stimulus, tax and budget votes indicate that there are at least 20 Democrats who are strongly inclined to oppose Mr. Clinton whenever he tries to do the sort of things that the liberal majority of House Democrats want him to do. So a Republican gain of 20 seats might give Republicans effective control of the House -- without saddling them with formal control that would enable Mr. Clinton to run against a Republican Congress in 1996 as Truman did in 1948.

Thus the drama unfolding here and in competitive congressional races around the country, but especially in the South, could make 1994 the most consequential off-year election since Republicans captured the House and the Senate in 1946.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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