Primaries give Democrats reason to be spooked

September 22, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- If the Democrats are going to panic, this is probably as good a time as any. The results from the last round of primary elections have sent a clear message that this is a bad year for the politicians in charge in Washington.

The most striking result was, of course, the defeat of Rep. Mike Synar of Oklahoma, who lost a runoff to a 71-year-old retired high school principal who spent less than $17,000 on the campaign.

But there was equal reason for Democrats to be spooked by results from Washington that suggest that Speaker of the House Tom Foley and at least three incumbent House Democrats -- all freshmen elected when President Clinton swept the state two years ago -- are facing difficult general election campaigns.

There have been strong signs all year that there was an angry current of reaction running in the electorate against Clinton and, by association, the Democratic Party.

These late returns are a final warning that the Democrats must find some new approach to the politics of 1994, an imposing task with only seven weeks until the elections, or face the kind of losses that would cripple Clinton in the final two years of his term.

It has never been any secret that Synar might have trouble again this year. He is by any reckoning more liberal than his district. But in the past Synar has fended off strong campaigns against him by presenting himself, accurately, as a determinedly independent legislator who dealt effectively with serious issues in Congress.

This time, however, a private poll showed that 54 percent of his constituents disapproved of his performance in office, in part obviously because he was a consistent defender of President Clinton, voting for his budget in 1993 while Sen. David Boren was opposing it, and taking a prominent role in trying to promote health care reform.

Synar responded to the threat with a campaign of heavy television advertising and 100,000 telephone calls, but to no avail.

Conceding defeat, the Oklahoma Democrat called the result "a referendum on Mike Synar and not on Bill Clinton." But it was clear that his willingness to identify himself with Clinton confirmed the view that, as one professional involved in the campaign put it, "his people were saying you're out of touch."

Synar might have survived the runoff if he could have personalized the contest with Virgil Cooper and forced voters to see the runoff as more a choice than a referendum. But, as one strategist said, "He's running against a 71-year-old guy, so how do you get in a fight with him?"

In some respects, the returns from Washington were even more threatening to the Democrats. Primaries there include candidates of both parties, with the top vote-getters from each meeting in the general election. Foley could poll only 35 percent against three Republicans and will face George Nethercutt, who took 30 percent. Two years ago, in a similar situation, Foley won 53 percent of the primary vote.

Foley's weakness was made all the more apparent when the other big-name Washington politician on the primary ballot, Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, took 52 percent of the vote against 14 opponents.

The performance of the three freshmen was equally chilling for the Democrats. Rep. Maria Cantwell captured 45 percent, enough to suggest she could survive in November but is hardly home free. Rep. Jay Inslee polled only 42 percent against a Republican with 49 percent, and Rep. Mike Kreidler took 48 percent against a single Republican he now will meet in the general election.

All of these Democrats had been on Republican lists of targets but were not considered among the most vulnerable. If two or three of those seats turn over, the Republicans are probably on the way to a gain of 30 seats or more -- only 10 fewer than they need for control of the House.

Just how much of this pattern can be traced to Clinton's political weakness is impossible to determine with any accuracy. It is obviously a factor, particularly in the more conservative districts in which Clinton's approval ratings are running 10 to 15 percentage points lower than those for the nation as a whole.

But the problem is not just Clinton's negatives but the failure of the president and the Democratic Party to persuade voters that there are offsetting positive elements in their record.

"The issues," said a Democratic consultant, "just aren't there for anybody to run on."

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