For Democrats: Getting Worse

September 26, 1994

It has been 134 years since a speaker of the House of Representatives lost a re-election bid. After last Tuesday's voting in the state of Washington, some political analysts believe it may happen again this year.

Washington has an open primary in which all candidates from both parties run against each other. The highest finisher from each party gets the nominations. Speaker Tom Foley was the only Democrat, and got 35 percent of the vote. A Republican won a four-way race with 30 percent. Considering that in 1992 Mr. Foley increased his primary vote by only 2 percentage points in the general election, Democrats are apprehensive.

In fact, "apprehensive" isn't the word for it. Last week's voting in Washington was enough to create what House Democratic Chief Deputy Whip Bill Richardson called "near panic out there," referring to the Democratic side of the aisle in the chamber of the House. But the speaker's poor showing wasn't the only alarm bell that day. Rep. Mike Synar, an eight-term veteran from Oklahoma, lost in his primary run-off to a 71-year-old novice who spent only about $20,000 while running a throw-the-rascals-out-campaign.

Rep. Vic Fazio of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said of those outcomes: "I don't think it's as much anti-Democrat as anti-incumbent." That's whistling in the graveyard, and no comfort to his party. There are 225 Democratic incumbents running for re-election, but only 157 Republicans.

The "out" party usually does better in open seat races -- those in which incumbents are retiring or running for higher office. This is more bad news for the Democrats. Thirty-one of those open seats are now held by Democrats and only 21 by Republicans. Republicans are thought likely to do especially well in Southern open-seat races. There are 15 of those, 12 of which are now held by Democrats.

Republican Whip Newt Gingrich has predicted that his party may win a majority in the House in November, making him speaker even if Tom Foley is re-elected. There hasn't been a Republican majority in the House in 40 years, but some Democrats are beginning to believe the unthinkable is thinkable. Representative Fazio had been predicting his party would lose only 25 seats in November. That would leave it with a 231-203 edge over the Republicans. Surveying the primary damage and the dismal polls for Democrats, he now says: "Obviously, it could be worse."

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