Democratic Strategy Hinges On West

June 03, 1995|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Sun Staff Correspondent

SEATTLE -- If the election of 1994 can be considered a political earthquake, then the epicenter had to be here in Washington state.

In a single stroke, the state's delegation to the House of Representatives turned around from 8 to 1 Democratic to 7 to 2 Republican. The most prominent of the six Democratic victims was, of course, then-Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley.

The other side of this coin is that Washington state has now become a prime battleground in a contest for the far West next year that will go a long way toward determining, first, whether the Democrats have any realistic chance of regaining control of the House and, more important, whether President Clinton can be re-elected to a second term.

Indeed, Democratic leaders here and at national headquarters believe that their chance of gaining a net of 14 seats in the House -- the magic number needed to make Newt Gingrich minority leader -- requires winning back at least three of the six lost here. No other state, party officials concede, offers such a rich potential.

At the same time, the importance of Washington and the West to the White House has been elevated to some degree by the recognition among political professionals in both parties that Mr. Clinton is unlikely to win any electoral votes in the South next year except those from Arkansas and possibly Tennessee, the home state of Vice President Al Gore.

Thus, to put together the required 270 electoral votes, Mr. Clinton needs most, if not all, of the 96 he captured in the West in 1992 -- and not just the 54 of California that Democratic strategists acknowledge are an absolute must for re-election.

That imperative has been behind Mr. Clinton's having made six trips to the region since he took office, including his visit to Montana this week and another visit to Oregon scheduled later this month. And it is the reason both national parties are expected to invest heavily in the campaign here at both the presidential and congressional level.

Washington (11 electoral votes) and neighboring Oregon (7) are particular targets because they have shown more consistent willingness to vote for Democratic presidential nominees than any other state in the region other than Hawaii (4). Both states went for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, as well as for Mr. Clinton in 1992.

The other Western states that went Democratic last time -- Colorado, New Mexico, Montana and Nevada -- usually are more difficult ground for the Democrats, as are the five that George Bush carried -- Arizona, Wyoming, Alaska, Idaho and Utah.

But the political equation here is extremely complex. Mr. Clinton carried Washington and Oregon by 10 percent-plus last time. But in both states, independent Ross Perot came away with 24 percent, 5 percentage points above his national tally. And, as a national Democratic leader acknowledged privately, "Those ain't our people right now."

On the other hand, Mr. Clinton seems to be getting higher marks in the Pacific Northwest than he is nationally. A recent opinion poll commissioned by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer put his approval rating at 59 percent.

"I really think President Clinton's coming up here," said Paul Berendt, the Washington state Democratic chairman. "This is a kind of economics-driven state, and things have been going well."

Indeed, even though Boeing aircraft has laid off about 30,000 workers in the past two years, about 120,000 new jobs -- many in computer software and biotechnology -- have been created.

Democrats' prospects are not without some clouds. Washington Gov. Mike Lowry has an approval rating of 38 percent and has been in trouble almost since the day he took office and began promulgating a tax increase. Those troubles multiplied early this year when he was accused of sexual harassment by three former members of his staff, an issue both Republicans and Democratic strategists believe has undermined him with his base vote among liberal women.

The issue now is less whether Mr. Lowry runs again than which Democrat is most likely to defeat him in a primary. The list of potential primary challengers is long and includes a prominent legislative leader, Nita Rinehart; one of the congressional incumbents who lost last year, Jay Inslee; and Mayor Norman Rice of Seattle. And the Republicans count nine potential candidates who already have expressed some interest.

In the contest for the House seats, the Democrats believe their prospects are enhanced by the fact that, as Mr. Berendt put it, "some of these people were elected by accident" -- meaning that no one foresaw a 67-year-old advocate of the gold standard or a 29-year-old trailer-park operator winning.

That, of course, is the imperative for the Democrats in seeking House seats everywhere -- identifying those freshmen who were surprise and narrow winners and now may be more vulnerable than if they win second terms. Another factor, consultant Jeff Smith points out, is that the Democratic turnout is likely to be substantially higher in a presidential election year than it was in .. 1994.

But the Republicans who won those seats Nov. 8 are still enjoying the benefits of their role in the new majority pushing through the "Contract with America." Unpublished opinion polls show that the voters "do not think yet that they made any mistakes" in electing all those Republicans, poll-taker Celinda Lake said.

Republican pros here seem more concerned about Mr. Clinton than about losing the House seats. Said state party Chairman Ken Eikenberry: "As a matter of fact, we intend to go after at least one of the two the Democrats still have."

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