For Democrats, 3 Pa. races key to reclaiming Congress Competitive contests get national attention in battle for House

July 20, 1998|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SCRANTON, Pa. -- When veteran Republican Joseph M. McDade decided to surrender his House seat here after 36 years in Washington, the situation seemed ripe for the Democrats. Waiting in the wings was the sure-fire successor, Patrick Casey, son of former Gov. Robert P. Casey and brother of the sitting state auditor general, Robert Casey Jr.

Young Casey, the theory went, was a perfect fit. The 32-year-old lawyer is the spit and image of his popular father and the kind of socially conservative Pennsylvania Democrat who has always done well running on bread-and-butter issues with voters who have been seeking some alternative economic base to replace the diminishing supply of anthracite coal.

But then in May, the Republicans held a primary and up popped Don Sherwood, an automobile dealer and political neophyte at 57. Although he began as a pronounced underdog to Mayor Jim Connors of Scranton, Sherwood buried Connors and six other rivals to come away with more than 43 percent of the vote, an impressive performance in such a large field.

According to Jim McNulty, a former mayor and longtime political insider here, Sherwood's showing scuttled "the conventional wisdom the deal was over" and made it plain that the race for this seat is "more competitive than it was in the beginning."

Just how competitive is impossible to say at this early stage in the campaign of 1998, though the Republicans have produced a poll showing Sherwood leading but within the poll's margin of error, 45 percent to 42 percent among likely voters.

What is clear, poll results aside, is how difficult it is going to be for the Democrats to gain the 11 seats that would give them control of the House next year. In district after district, some local factor seems to make the outcome easier to predict from Washington than on the ground.

3 close races expected

That reality is no more apparent than in Pennsylvania. Three districts are rated as toss-ups -- the 10th; the 13th, in the Philadelphia suburbs, now occupied by perhaps the most vulnerable Republican in the nation, Jon D. Fox; and the 15th, south of here, where the vacancy has been created by the retirement of a Democrat, Paul McHale. If the Democrats don't win at least two and perhaps all three, it is hard to see where they can gain 11 nationally.

"I'd say two of the three would mean Democrats gain seats, but maybe not 11," said Mark Gersh of the liberal National Committee for an Effective Congress, an expert on political demographics.

The Casey-Sherwood contest is not in full flower. The Republican won the primary by spending about $400,000, much of it on six direct-mail pieces, and by putting together a volunteer force that he says enlisted 1,800 people. Without a primary opponent, Casey tried to keep visible and to raise money, enough so that he has more than $400,000 on hand and, like Sherwood, expects to spend $1 million in the general election campaign.

Sherwood is a conventionally conservative Republican with a disarmingly soft-spoken manner and a long history of involvement in local school and civic affairs as well as business. He likes to contrast what he calls his "real world experience" in business with that of his 32-year-old rival, particularly in terms of their relative ability to create jobs -- always the first priority in a Pennsylvania election. "What resonated with the voters [in the primary]," he says, "is that I wasn't another politician."

Casey is an equally conventional Democrat in his concentration on economic issues. He rarely allows himself three sentences without referring to "working families." Rather than supporting a flat tax, as Sherwood does, Casey wants to see changes in the tax law to provide more child care and help for those "working families" who care for elderly parents. He is especially aware of the departure of so many young people from Lackawanna County and the rest of the district seeking jobs. "I think we can change that," he says. "I'm very optimistic that we can do it."

Size of voter turnout a factor

At this point, nothing indicates that any single issue will have a great deal of resonance in the campaign. Both Sherwood and Casey oppose abortion rights in an area that for years has been an anti-abortion stronghold. As far back as 1976, candidate Jimmy Carter brought his presidential campaign into Scranton and was taken aback when close to 5,000 demonstrators gathered at his hotel to attack him for supporting abortion rights.

Nor are there signs of nationalization of the campaign, such as occurred four years ago when voters turned so angrily against President Clinton and the Democratic leadership in Congress after the fiasco with health care reform.

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