Democrats confident despite GOP's high-tech lead; Computers playing ever-larger role as a campaign tool
Washington — Although the politicking is just beginning in earnest, the race for control of the House of Representatives left the post long ago. Republicans and Democrats already have recruited their candidates, planned strategy, and raised much of the money.
Each camp is making rosy predictions for its side. But in recent interviews, Democratic officials are more ebullient about their future. ''The mood is that we're going to clean their clocks,'' says Rep. Tony Coelho (D) of California, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. ''We're doing extremely well because the economy is so bad.''
Not long ago Republicans were harboring dreams of sweeping into power in the House, just as they had taken over the Senate in 1980. Many have scaled back their hopes, but not Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. ''The Republicans definitely could take over the House,'' says the Michigan congressman, who is the Republican superstar of fund-raising.
The key is to ''pin the tail on the donkey,'' says Mr. Vander Jagt, and ''make it clear that the Democrats made this (economic) mess.'' He concedes that he wishes fellow Republicans would begin making that point.
Although the economy will clearly dominate, this year's congressional campaigns consist of more than assessing blame for the nation's problems. Money, organization, even high technology, plus the choice of candidates will make or break campaigns. And in the first three of these departments, the Republicans are acknowledged as superior.
When this reporter visited the Republican congressional campaign headquarters , the hallways were stacked high with newly arrived computer terminals--evidence of the Republican riches and high-tech approach to politics. This week the Democratic committee was expecting delivery of two computer terminals.
Long known as the party of corporate America, the GOP takes a decidely businesslike approach to campaigning.
''A campaign is an enterprise where the sale is on for one day, and what a candidate is trying to do is get a 51 percent share of the market,'' says Nancy Sinnott, executive director of the GOP campaign committee.
So the Republicans have systematically gone about trying to capture that market share. First they raise money, and lots of it. This year the GOP congressional campaign committee expects to raise $37 million, while the Democrats have hopes for raising only $8 million to give to their candidates.
Despite their big-money image, the Republicans have built their huge war chest on contributions that average $20 each. Most of the credit goes to Mr. Vander Jagt, who established a computerized fund-raising drive by mail. ''We have truly become the party of the little giver,'' says Vander Jagt, whose leadership boosted the campaign committee's fund-raising from $900,000 in 1974 to its current $30-million-plus level.
Democrats, meanwhile, depend heavily on a few generous benefactors. Congressman Coelho is beginning to change that by taking pages out of the Vander Jagt book. The Democrats now have their own fund-raising letter drives. But the funds will be no help in the 1982 elections because all money raised by the mailings so far is plowed back into more fund-raising.
The Republican advantage goes even further since the party has carefully courted ''political action committees'' (PACs), special-interest groups that donate to selected candidates. A Republican road show of officials is now visiting more than a dozen cities to make contact with local PACs. Democrats have responded with a PAC forum in Washington for their candidates, but they are still playing catch-up.
Beyond the money advantage, the Republicans are also far ahead in systematic recruitment and training of candidates, in digging up negative information about their opponents, and in media advertising. Nine Republican field directors scattered throughout the states scout out candidates for the House. Once a candidate decides to run, he or she can then attend a training workshop, courtesy of the Republican campaign committee, for lessons in everything from political issues to looking good on TV. And Republican candidates can send their campaign directors to a six-day training session in Arlington.
The Democrats are beginning to offer some training, but it's only in the early stages. Their recruiting staff consists of one director and two assistants manning telephones in Washington.
Both parties now store information in computers on their opponents. But the Republicans are ahead in that area, too. Vander Jagt says that his committee's ''extensive opposition research program'' includes keeping voting records and financial reports on Democrats.
''Many of their members got by voting liberal here and talking conservative back home,'' says Vander Jagt. With the computer, a Republican challenger can have plenty of ammunition.
For the first time, Republican candidates will have computers at their campaign headquarters that can tie into the Washington campaign committee. ''I think this is an exciting new breakthrough in political campaigning,'' says Vander Jagt.
Democrat Coelho has wasted little time in following the lead. He already has obtained computerized information, such as voting records, on Republicans. ''As we score a few points, the Republicans realize we are there,'' he says. ''They're watching us all over the place.''
Coelho is particularly pleased that his committee's records turned up proof that Vice-President George Bush had once referred to Reaganomics as ''voodoo economics.'' Mr. Bush on Feb. 10 challenged anyone to offer proof that he had used that term, and within hours the Democratic congressional campaign had pulled out a Pittsburgh newspaper clipping with the evidence and sent out a press release.
The Democrats will not be able to compete with the Republicans in one field, however, and that is national media advertisements. The Democrats don't have the money. The Republicans scored big with their ''Vote Republican for a change'' theme in 1980. Now the Republicans are working on a new slogan, ''something with 'new,' 'change,' or 'fresh,' '' he says.
Although these aids may boost the Republicans, they do not guarantee victory. Republicans have had a number of these advantages for years without winning big gains in Congress. More important will be the quality of candidates. Both parties are claiming superiority there.
Top candidates are sensing a Democratic victory this year, says Coelho, and signing up to run. ''I do know for a fact that the Republicans are having trouble convincing people to run,'' he says.
Republican Vander Jagt counters, ''We have far and away the best crop of candidates that we've ever fielded.'' He lists such media stars as a former all-American football player, an astronaut, and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam as ''sure winners.'' He says he worries more about losing GOP incumbents than losing challenger races.
Meanwhile, both parties are taking aim at each other's leaders. ''We have candidates we've been drooling over,'' allows Vander Jagt. One is a California sheriff that the GOP is lining up against Tony Coelho.
The Democrats hope to keep Vander Jagt busy (and off the fund-raising circuit) with an opponent in his district, and two Democrats are running write-in campaigns in the Illinois district of House Republican leader Robert H. Michel.
The voters will make the final determination about who has the best candidates, and one unknown factor is exactly which districts they will vote in. Only months before the elections, the nationwide redistricting for Congress is far from complete. The new districts, which must comply with the 1980 census figures, remain unsettled in about half the states.
Since most of the population shifts are from the Democratic urban North to more surburban areas in Florida and the West, the Republicans expect to gain seats in redistricting. But the gain may not be as big as some Republicans had hoped, largely because of maneuvering in Democratic-controlled statehouses.
Vander Jagt says he expects a net ''bonus'' of 10 to 12 GOP seats from redistricting. Eugene Eidenberg, executive director of the National Democratic Committee, has predicted that neither party will gain.''All that Republican money, those computers, and maps,'' did not help them in redistricting, says Mr. Eidenberg. ''When it comes down to it, it's good, fair, tough politics.''
Vander Jagt describes redistricting differently - as the ''crassest'' form of politics. But he agrees that computers won't guarantee a favorable result. Nor will political high technology assure a victory next November, but the Republicans are convinced it won't hurt.