Washington — The 1982 election race, set to start with the March 16 Illinois primary, will be another incumbents' marathon.
Neither the Ides of March start nor the officeholders' laments of budget woes , deficits, and impatient voters evidently count for much against the pleasures of life on the Potomac or the graces of the governors mansions.
Of the 504 US Senate, House, and governors seats up for election Nov. 2, only 17 will be emptied by retirement.
Incumbents will be seeking reelection in all but two of the 33 Senate races this year. Those bowing out are Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R) of California and Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. (Independent) of Virginia. Only 12 of the 435 congressmen are retiring, at latest count. Another 17 are seeking higher office.
That means 14 of 468 incumbent congressmen and senators are voluntarily planning to leave public life. Several of these have been crowded out by redistricting.
Of the 36 governors' seats to be contested this fall, four incumbents are ineligible to run again. Three others are voluntarily retiring from public life (Republicans Albert Quie of Minnesota, Robert Ray of Iowa, William G. Milliken of Michigan), and one will run for the Senate (California Democrat Edmund G. Brown Jr.).
Nothing says more about this year's elections than such tenacity in holding office.
Of the 504 major US political offices at stake, the Democrats hold the edge with 284 incumbents to the Republicans' 220. Twenty-one of the 33 open Senate seats are held by Democrats, as are 20 of 36 open governorships. Democrats also hold 243 of the 435 House seats, all of which are contested every two years.
The Democrats are expected to increase their overall hold on offices, taking possibly three-fifths of all seats at stake in November. Current counts have the Democrats offsetting the loss of a seat or two in the Senate with gains of 10 to 20 seats in the House. And Democrats expect to pick up three to five governors' offices from the Republicans.
At the moment, the overall pattern for 1982 looks more like what the experts call a modest midterm correction than anything like a landslide in either direction.
The big loss years in American politics usually come in the sixth year -- the midpoint of an administration's second term. Republicans gained two Senate seats in 1970 -- the halfway point in President Nixon's first term - and held House losses to nine, Congressional Quarterly points out. Democrats gained two Senate seats in the Kennedy 1962 midterm and lost five in the House. And President Carter's party in 1978 held its losses to three in the Senate and a dozen in the House, despite the Democratic President's slipping popularity.
In modern times, a president's party gets the benefit of the doubt in his first midterm test. Anything like a 36 GOP House seat loss -- which President Reagan's chief of staff James Baker III has said would represent ''victory'' -- would, by historical standards, be a severe setback.
As it is, 1982 looks like a vital political year. The campaigns will be played against the broad issues of war readiness, the future of the welfare state, and government investment in education, health, and agriculture. The scope and toughness of the issues -- given the number of incumbents running -- seems to have whetted the appetites of political aspirants, rather than make them doubt the seriousness of political office.
The political calendar -- from Illinois' spring-planting-conscious March date to the traditional post-Labor Day clusters of primaries in the East and West -- reflects some of the earliest forces and axioms in American political life.
In Illinois, next Tuesday's primary is expected to confirm Gov. James R. Thompson as the Republican candidate for governor, against a farmer and a right-wing physician. Former Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson III, facing no challenge, will emerge as the Democratic candidate for the governor's post, once held by his father.
The most stimulating part of Illinois' primaries will be in the US House races. At least six districts will be closely contested. Democratic incumbent Gus Savage is being seriously challenged in his Chicago district by three Democrats, at least two of whom could beat him. Illinois loses two congressional seats this year -- thanks to the 1980 census -- and both of them appear likely to come from the Republican column.
Eight of the 50 state primaries will have runoffs. All runoffs are in the South and border regions, where they developed in the old one-party South.
Louisiana's Sept. 11 primary is by far the oddest: All candidates of both parties vie in the same primary, with the two top vote-getters in each race competing in the general election, regardless of party. If a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the primary vote, he's elected without a general election.
The runoffs are widely spread from June 5 in Texas to Oct. 5 in Florida.
The 1982 calendar will include, besides the 58 primaries and runoffs, a number of party caucuses and conventions. Republicans in North Dakota and Massachusetts held the first party conventions the first weekend of March. Party conventions also will be held Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Utah, and Virginia.
At the national level, Republicans will hold their informal Tidewater convention March 12 to 14 in Easton, Md., across the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis. The Democrats will hold their official midterm convention this year in Philadelphia June 25 to 27.
Several of this year's state primary dates remain unsettled, largely because of legal challenges to congressional redistricting plans drawn up by state legislatures. North Carolina's primary could be held in June or August. Pennsylvania's May 18 date, California and New Jersey's June 8, and New York's Sept. 14 settings are in various stages of flux.
Primary election calender March Illinois March 16 May Texas May 1 Indiana May 4 Nebraska May 11 Oregon May 18 Pennsylvania May 18 Arkansas May 25 Idaho May 25 Kentucky May 25 June Mississippi June 1 New Mexico June 1 South Dakota June 1 West Virginia June 1 California June 8 Iowa June 8 Maine June 8 Montana June 8 New Jersey June 8 North Dakota June 8 Ohio June 8 South Carolina June 8 Virginia June 8 August Kansas Aug. 3 Michigan Aug. 3 Missouri Aug. 3 Tennessee Aug. 5 Georgia Aug. 10 Alaska Aug. 24 Oklahoma Aug. 24 September Alabama Sept. 7 Arizona Sept. 7 Connecticut Sept. 7 Florida Sept. 7 Delaware Sept. 11 Louisiana Sept. 11 Colorado Sept. 14 Minnesota Sept. 14 Maryland Sept. 14 Massachusetts Sept. 14 Nevada Sept. 14 New Hampshire Sept. 14 New York Sept. 14 Rhode Island Sept. 14 Utah Sept. 14 Vermont Sept. 14 Washington Sept. 14 Wyoming Sept. 14 Hawaii Sept. 18 No date set North Carolina Source: Congressional Quarterly