Austin, Texas — If you hear more about foreign trade and its relationship to domestic unemployment as the 1986 Congressional elections roll around, you can thank the northeast corner of Texas. The come-from-behind victory Saturday of the Democrat in a special election in Texas's First Congressional District is being viewed by state and congressional leaders as a successful test run of the trade issue as a Democratic Party campaign issue.
Democrat Jim Chapman squeezed past Republican Edd Hargett with 51 percent of the vote in the mostly rural district.
Mr. Chapman's victory also provides a much-needed boost to Texas Democrats, who in recent months have watched dozens of former party members announce their switch to the Republican camp.
The Republican Party had hoped for a victory, in a district that has never elected a Republican, as proof of political realignment in the South.
Throughout much of July, polls conducted by both campaign headquarters indicated a comfortable edge for Mr. Hargett.
But Chapman was able to make a winning issue of foreign trade's effect on jobs.
The Democrats claimed that the Republican ``free trade'' stance is no policy at all and that ``fair trade'' laws must be enacted to protect American jobs.
Chapman also capitalized on what he termed ``Republican threats'' to social security benefits.
``The trade issue has been on the back burner, but people out here are fighting mad about it,'' said Chapman in a telephone interview shortly after his victory. ``It took this race to bring it up front.''
Chapman said unemployment is up 31 percent over last year in his district. Much of the increase results from ``unfair'' foreign competition in steel and textiles, two economic mainstsays of the district, he said.
``We feel confident that the trade deficit and its effect on jobs will be a major issue in 1986,'' said Tom King, political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington.
Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, himself a former Democrat, recruited Mr. Hargett -- an engineer with highname recognition from his days as a local college football star -- as a good prospect for proving Republican strength in a once died-in-the-wool-Democrat district. Despite their defeat, Republicans labeled Hargett's high vote tally an historical event.
Just how ``scientific'' a laboratory this district was for the Democrats dual issues of foreign trade and social security is uncertain.
District voters have the highest average age of any district in Texas, and its high rural population does not reflect national demographics.
The fact that Hargett's strength came in the district's population centers could mean the Democrats have not found a foolproof campaign pitch.