Democrats think they can recapture the House next year

March 03, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Two years ago the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tried to recruit Mike Thompson, a county supervisor, to run for Congress against Republican Rep. Frank Riggs in California's First District. Mr. Thompson demurred and chose to run for a state senate seat instead.

There was a lot of that kind of thinking going on in the Democratic Party early in 1995 after the shocking loss of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Challenging the forces of Newt Gingrich didn't seem promising.

The other day Mr. Thompson passed the word that he plans to make the race against Mr. Riggs next year. And Democratic professionals believe he has a realistic chance of bringing the seat back into Democratic hands.

There is a lot of that kind of thinking going around among Democrats now. Only two years after hitting bottom, they believe conditions are ripe for gaining the 10 House seats that would regain control of the House.

The Republicans will dispute that analysis. They have some promising candidates of their own ready to run against vulnerable Democrats. But many elements of the political context for 1998 could favor the Democrats in the House campaign.

What cannot be anticipated is the political climate two years from now, in particular whether the growing investigations of Democratic fund-raising last year will leave a stain on the entire party and its candidates, not just the White House.

Late slippage

An analysis of the 1998 situation by Mark Gersh of the National Committee for an Effective Congress provides nourishment for Democratic optimism.

For one thing, there is the suspicion, shared by many Republican professionals, that the Democrats might have won control last year if President Clinton had not suffered slippage late in the campaign when the ''Asian money'' story put him on the defensive. Exit polls showed that the 17 percent of the voters who made their decisions in the last week split 55-to-45 percent for Republican House candidates.

As it turned out, Democrats gained nine seats. Their 207 seats make them the largest minority in Congress in more than 40 years. Since Independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont votes with the Democrats in organizing the House, 10 more seats would secure Democratic control.

There are other factors in the Gersh analysis. For the first time since 1986 more Republicans than Democrats -- 44 to 36 -- won last year with 55 percent or less of the vote, the definition of a marginal seat.

Among incumbents re-elected last year, 29 Republicans and only 12 Democrats are in the marginal category. In House districts decided by 5 percent or less, 23 Republican and 18 Democratic seats are at stake. And among the real squeakers -- won with 51 percent or less of the vote -- are 26 Republicans and only 11 Democrats.

Not all of the figures are as encouraging for the Democrats. Freshmen in marginal seats include 24 Democrats and 15 Republicans. Freshmen are always the most vulnerable incumbents, and Democratic prospects for retaking the House depend on defending those seats.

Obvious targets

Mr. Gersh believes that if the Democrats can break even in the South, they have the potential to gain five seats in the East, five to seven in the Far West and five to seven in the Midwest. Some of the targets are obvious. In Washington, which he calls ''our biggest failure'' in 1996 when the Democrats won only one of six targeted seats, the Democrats believe they have a good chance of winning three or four next year.

There is, of course, many a slip between cup and lip in such projections. Candidates who look promising may turn out to be turkeys, and apparently vulnerable Republicans may show they are much tougher than advertised. And turnout among core Democratic constituencies can vary widely.

Still, the context is right for a serious challenge to the Republican hold on the House.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/03/97

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