GOP planning early strike at Democratic incumbents in US House

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Welcome to Campaign '86. Republican strategists, already looking ahead to the next congressional elections, are drawing up a target list in an effort to whittle down the Democrats' 71-seat margin in the House.

Guy Vander Jagt, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, wants to launch an early, $4 million to $5 million effort aimed at Democratic officeholders in the House. The Vander Jagt plan would include television ads, direct mail, and radio spots to bombard 25 to 30 Democratic House members back in their home districts for the next year and a half.

History tells us that GOP hopes of picking up seats in '86 could be dashed. Midterm elections almost always result in losses for the party holding the White House. But in 1986, GOP leaders insist, things will be different.

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Republican pollster Robert Teeter and Michigan Representative Vander Jagt, who spoke to reporters over breakfast Wednesday, point out that the time may be ripe for GOP gains. Says Vander Jagt: ``For the first time in my lifetime,'' more voters are identifying themselves as Republicans than Democrats.

Yet this Republican surge among voters isn't reflected in the House, where Democrats have maintained their overwhelming strength.

There appear to be two reasons for this. One is the current districting procedures, which in a number of states (especially California) have drawn districts in ways that favor the maximum number of Democratic winners.

There is also the tremendous ``power of incumbency'' -- the added advantage that comes from running as the incumbent officeholder. Since most House seats are already held by Democrats, it gives that party an advantage at the outset.

The Republican plan for '86 calls for starting early to erode that incumbent advantage. Looking around the country, party political planners see a number of Democrats who won in '84 either by very small margins or who are what they call ``tired Democrats'' -- officeholders who are ignoring the voters back home.

Mr. Teeter notes that it wouldn't take a very large change among the voters to make a very big difference in the next elections. For instance, in 35 districts across the United States, Democrats won by a grand total of only 432,400 votes. That's an average of only 6,177 votes per district -- which means that a switch of only about 3,100 voters per district (on average) could have thrown a lot of new seats toward the GOP.

Some districts were a lot closer than that. In Idaho's Second District, for example, the Democratic candidate won by only 67 votes. In Pennsylvania's Seventh, Democratic victory came by only 481 votes.

In most elections, the incumbent begins as the strong favorite. He or she is usually already a household name, while the challenger may be virtually unknown. Further, the incumbent has lots of ways to reenforce his strength, including the franking privilege, which allows him to send numerous mailings to his constituents.

What the Republicans hope to do, Vander Jagt says, is spend roughly $200,000 in each targeted district to ``weaken'' the incumbent. The GOP would do this, he says, by giving some ``news from the other side.''

The GOP media project would begin in April, and end in August 1986.

Although many Republicans were deeply disappointed with the congressional election outcome in 1984, Teeter says the GOP remains in a strong position to whittle away at Democratic control of the House.

Polling results from a number of sources over the past 32 years show that in late 1984, for the first time in modern history, more voters identified themselves as Republicans than Democrats.

As recently as 1978, Democrats led Republicans in party loyalty by 53 percent to 30 percent nationwide. Yet as of last month, the GOP held a narrow 3-point lead, 44 to 41.

Teeter says there appear to be a number of reasons for this turnaround -- performance in office, economic policy, national defense, and Ronald Reagan.

Performance is extremely important. Most Americans, the polls show, believe things are going pretty well in the country. Perhaps for that reason, many Americans now support Reagan economic policies. Strong national defense policies, Teeter's polls show, have been vital in improving the Republican posture, expecially among voters under 39 years old. It was young voters who swelled Mr. Reagan's majority in November.

Finally, there is the President's personal popularity. There's no doubt it's a strong plus for the entire party. But what happens when he leaves office? Teeter reminds us the New Deal coalition didn't end when Franklin D. Roosevelt left office.

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