Washington — Democrats in Congress see trouble ahead in November. Erosion in Democratic ranks on the Hill, while not expected to be precipitous , could prove to be enough to greatly strengthen Republican Ronald Reagan's hand if he wins the White House, and prepare the way for GOP control of the Senate in 1982.
Democrats in trouble, including Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, concede they are feeling the pressure of right-wing attacks.
Others like Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin find themselves threatened by a more general tide of "republican issues" in 1980 -- the unwelcome economic twins of inflation and recession, plus the impression of failing US military might.
Most Democratic congressmen see President Carter as more of a hindrance than a help, and want to put distance between him and themselves. But because Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Mr. Carter's intraparty White House rival, carries an even higher negative rating, his colleagues find no incentive to turn to him.
Ironically, it is independent president candidate John B. Anderson who many of the Democrats count on to save their seats on Capitol Hill. With ticket-splitting becoming more commonplace, these Democrats hope that liberals, progressives, and independents -- in Senator Nelson's case, already his usual constituency -- will be enticed to the polls by Mr. Anderson's presence on the ballot when otherwise they would stay home.
"A lot of factors are working to favor the Republicans in 1980," says Thomas E. Mann, a congressional affairs expert. "They've been out of office a long time and their numbers are low, ready to recover.
"More important, there's a sense on Capitol Hill the issues are Republican issues this year -- the dreadful state of the Democratic-controlled economy, the need for greater defense spending.
"Republicans have been resourceful in mounting a national political strategy, recruiting good candidates to make congressional races more competitive. Effective financial and technical support is coming from the Republican National Committee.
"Plus the word is out that with Jimmy Carter at the top of the ticket, many Democratic voters will stay home," Mr. Mann explains.
Mr. Mann puts the most reasonable estimate of Democratic losses in the Senate of three to five seats, which would be short of the nine the Democrats would have to lose to give the GOP control of the Senate. In the House, he estimates Democratic losses of 15 to 25 seats.
A 30-seat loss, he points out, still would give the Democrats a 244 to 191 edge in the next Congress. But even a 20-seat loss in the House could prove costly to the Democrats in case the presidential election is thrown into the House of Representatives because of Mr. Anderson's presence on the ballot, Mr. Mann says. Modest Republican gains in certain states would bring the GOP close to matching the Democrats in control of state delegations.
Senate majority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia "is worried he could in effect become the minority leader," says mcGovern spokesman Geoffrey Smith.
"In McGovern's case, the trouble isn't all Carter," Mr. Smith says. "The worse the economic situation becomes, the more the Farmers come to McGovern. They realize he may chair the Agricultural Committee in the next Congress.
"The main thing affecting McGovern is the spending and attack of the right-wing National Conservative Political Action Committee. They spent $150, 000 in South Dakota last year to defeat McGovern. And they plan to spend another $150,000 this year." The South Dakota Democratic Party went to court last week against the senator's conservative antagonists, charging colusion between the political action committee and the likely GOP opponent.
Senator McGovern should survive, Mr. Smith says, but the margin could be just 2 or 3 points.
Senator Nelson is not one of the liberals target for ousting by conservatives. "We're having a hard time raising money because we're not on the hit-list this year," says Nelson spokesman Steve Johnson.
"The leading issues in Wisconsin are the same as in [Democratic pollster] Peter Hart's polls: lack of confidence in the nation's economic direction, the decline in productivity, the feeling that Washington in general and Congress in particular are responsible," Mr. Johnson says. "Then there's concern over Iran and the state of American preparedness. Militarily the public feels that US is in second place and falling behind.
"A lot of senators are basing their strategy on a likely Carter loss. The concern up here [on Capitol] is that the Democrats not lose the nine seats and control of Congress."