Washington — IT'S final exam time for the Senate's Republican freshmen. Fifteen GOP senators, first elected in 1980 on Ronald Reagan's coattails, face the voters again on Nov. 4 -- and seldom has so much depended on the performance of a bunch of political rookies. If they stumble:
Republicans will lose control of the United States Senate for the first time in six years.
President Reagan will be faced with a new, perhaps insuperable barrier to his political and legislative agenda on Capitol Hill.
The White House will be weakened on foreign policy issues like arms control, ``star wars,'' and Central American communism.
The President's plans to reshape the federal judiciary in a conservative mold will be hampered.
Democrats will be energized, and see new hope for the 1988 presidential elections.
Ironically, such paramount concerns could hinge on the political appeal of senators who, as a group, have been described as mediocre and lackluster. Earlier critics dubbed them the ``Reagan robots.''
These are the men (and one woman) whose original victories largely came as a surprise to Republican strategists. John P. Sears III, a political adviser to Mr. Reagan during his 1980 campaign, once said of the senators:
``In the wee small hours of election night, we thought: `If all of us had known the Republicans were going to do so well [in the Senate races], we would have run some different guys.' ''
Yet on the eve of Election '86, some of these ``robots'' are turning out to be a tougher, more astute group than Democrats had expected. Others, however, may wind up with a failing grade.
There's little doubt that the GOP senator at the top of his freshman class this year is Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.
Senator Grassley, who defeated incumbent Sen. John C. Culver in 1980, was originally branded a ``right-wing rube,'' a ``hayseed,'' and a ``bumpkin'' by skeptics.
Yet today he's become the strongest, savviest freshman in the entire class.
It once seemed that Grassley's Senate seat would be ripe for the picking this year by the Democratic Party. Farmers were bemoaning high interest rates, collapsing land values, falling grain prices, and bankruptcies. President Reagan's popularity was comparatively low in Iowa, so low that he carried the state in 1984 by less than 100,000 votes -- one of his closest margins in the country. Republican Gov. Terry E. Branstad was running scared then -- and now. Grassley a shoo-in?
Today, however, it looks as if Grassley will be a shoo-in for reelection. Two brief stories illustrate how he did it and why Democrats are finding these Republican freshmen to be worthy adversaries.
Grassley had been in Washington only a short time when he began to shed his ``robot'' image. Like Reagan, he had come to Washington to fight budget deficits. But when Reagan unexpectedly proposed a budget with a huge deficit in April 1981, Grassley balked.
Instead he later proposed a budget freeze -- an idea consistent with Iowans' fondness for fairness. The White House was furious, because the freeze included defense. But Iowans were delighted. They not only admire fairness, but also relish independence. The more the White House put pressure on the senator, the more Grassley's popularity soared. The Chuck Spinney story
Then there's the story about Franklin (Chuck) Spinney, a Pentagon analyst who studied the Defense Department practice of ``low-balling'' estimates of weapons costs. Once Congress bought a new weapon or other product for a supposedly low price, the cost went up.
Grassley wanted to see Mr. Spinney's study on low-balling. The Pentagon refused. So one day Grassley climbed into his orange Chevette and drove over to the Pentagon where he demanded to see Spinney in person. Again the Pentagon refused, but the resulting publicity landed Spinney on the cover of Time magazine. Eventually, defense officials caved in, and Spinney appeared before a Senate committee.
All this roiled the White House, but today GOP officials cheerfully count Grassley as one of the senators they can be sure will return to Washington next year.
Grassley isn't the only almost-certain winner among the freshmen. There are at least four others:
In Indiana, Sen. Dan Quayle has only weak opposition from city councilwoman Jill Long, a Democrat from Valparaiso.
Senator Quayle's state leans Republican anyway, and he has proved himself adept at performing services for his constituents.
In New York State, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato squeaked into office in 1980 with 45 percent of the vote only because liberal and moderate votes were split between two other candidates, Elizabeth Holtzman (D) and then-incumbent Sen. Jacob K. Javits, who ran on the Liberal Party ticket. This time, Senator D'Amato has raised more than $8 million, a war chest that scared away serious Democratic opposition.
In New Hampshire, Sen. Warren B. Rudman, of Gramm Rudman fame, should win in a walk. Before sponsoring the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget law, the senator had toyed with skipping the election.
In Alaska, Sen. Frank H. Murkowski remains well ahead of his Democratic challenger, university president Glenn Olds. There appears little chance of an upset.
Yet these are just a few of the freshmen. Most of the others are causing the Republican Party and the White House varying degrees of political anguish. Although a few have made their mark in the Senate, the majority have failed to distinguish themselves sufficiently to put real daylight between themselves and their Democratic challengers.
Even so, Republicans concede the situation could have been even worse.
Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, observes that despite the vulnerability of some of the Republican freshmen, Democrats in state after state failed to field their best candidates.
As Senator Heinz puts it, in most states the Democrats aren't playing this year with their ``A team.'' Mattingly an example
In Georgia, for example, Republican freshman Mack Mattingly had failed to make an impression on the state's voters during his first term. But leading Democrats failed to challenge him, and the party's nomination went to US Rep. Wyche Fowler Jr., an Atlanta liberal who could have trouble winning over the state's large, conservative vote. Senator Mattingly is solidly favored.
Similarly, a year ago in North Dakota, Republicans were privately admitting that Democratic Rep. Byron L. Dorgan could easily defeat freshman Republican Sen. Mark Andrews. But Congressman Dorgan ducked the race, and Democrats had to go with state Tax Commissioner Kent Conrad. Today, the Conrad-Andrews race is very close, but Democrats could have done better.
Again, in New York State, prominent Democrats like former vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro opted out of a challenge to Republican freshman Senator D'Amato. Democrats were left with a weak candidate: consumer advocate Mark Green, a former associate of Ralph Nader.
All of this mitigates the Republican problem, but it doesn't solve it.
Richard Wirthlin, the President's pollster, observes that six of the 15 freshman Senate seats were won in 1980 with less than 51 percent of the vote. Among them, New York and Georgia appear safe. But the others -- Alabama, Idaho, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania -- are all high on the Democratic list for potential upsets.
Also, other Republican freshmen appear in trouble for reasons that are often local in nature.
In Florida, Sen. Paula Hawkins today may be the second most popular politician in the state. She'd be a certain winner except for one factor: She's running against the most popular politician in the state, Gov. Bob Graham. That's one state were Democrats managed to field their strongest candidate.
In South Dakota and North Dakota, the races appear exceptionally close. Sen. James Abdnor (R) of South Dakota failed to draw the same distinction between himself and Reagan farm policies that Grassley did in Iowa. He could lose. Republican Senator Andrews has similar problems to the north.
If it's farm problems that trouble the Dakota senators, it is farming, mining, and timber woes that are undercutting the economies in Washington State and Idaho. And that's hurting the GOP.
The race is so close in Idaho between Democratic Gov. John V. Evans and Republican freshman Steve Symms that it could be decided by a couple thousand votes. Gorton's race tightens
The Washington race, once considered an easy one for Republican freshman Slade Gorton, has tightened in the past two months. Democrat Brock Adams, a Cabinet member in the Carter White House, is still a slight underdog, but a Democratic upset in Washington would be no surprise.
What, then, will be Republican strategy in these final days to save these freshman senators who have given Reagan his GOP majority for the past six years?
There are several elements that could combine to salvage the Republican Senate majority.
The most obvious is the President himself. He's the most popular President in modern US history, and he is throwing himself completely into the Senate battle.
Dr. Wirthlin noted recently: ``I have never seen so many states so close and so undecided so late in the game.'' And that is where the President could be a tremendous asset. Polls show that after a presidential visit, support for a Republican Senate candidate generally rises by at least 2 percent. In very close races, that could be the difference.
Then there's money. Republicans almost always have more than Democrats, and that can be crucial in the final days of a race when most campaigning takes place through expensive TV ads. Republicans can afford to fire salvo after salvo of 30-second spots, and in many cases, Democrats do not have the cash to shoot back.
Long-term trends could also be helpful.
Analysts note that four years ago, during the last midterm elections, people who identified themselves as Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 51 percent to 35 percent. Today the parties are more evenly matched: 41 percent Democrats, 38 percent Republicans. The built-in Democratic advantage is being steadily reduced.
Finally, there is the economy, and this isn't all rosy news for the GOP. The current expansion has pushed America's economy to new heights. More people are working than ever. Yet an ABC/-Washington Post survey found that concern about the economy is growing, and now is at its highest point since the 1981-82 recession.
That could be the most pivotal factor of all. Among those who think the economy is getting worse, 66 percent favor Democratic Senate candidates, only 29 percent favor Republicans.
If economic concerns keep growing during the final days of this campaign, Nov. 4 could be a bleak day for the GOP -- and for its freshman senators. And the main reason could be factors over which the freshmen have little control: depression in the Farm Belt, in the ``oil patch,'' in the old smokestack cities, and in the natural resource states of the West.