Voters' Wrath Selective In Kentucky House Races

POLITICAL challengers in the angry year of 1992 are finding that winning elections is a lot like baseball. It takes more than one strike to get the incumbent out.

Voters have dumped 19 incumbents in the United States House of Representatives so far. That's a postwar record.

But voters' wrath has been selective, not general, says Malcolm Jewell, political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

"I don't think it's a throw-the-bums-out kind of an election," says David Dumeyer, a retired broadcast executive in Louisville, Ky. "If they are voted out, it's for a reason they have given us."

Kentucky is an excellent example of the selective anti-incumbent mood.

House members are far more vulnerable than senators. The House is where the banking and other scandals have occurred. It is also where redistricting changes voting patterns. Volatile House races

Thus, it is no surprise that Kentucky's House races are far more volatile than its Senate contest.

Three-term US Sen. Wendell Ford (D) looks set to defeat his Republican challenger, state Sen. David Williams.

"What a challenger has to do is lay the noose of incumbency around the incumbent's neck," Williams says. But he readily admits that defeating Senator Ford would be "the upset of the year."

Kentucky's House races, on the other hand, are up for grabs.

Redistricting collapsed the state's seven congressional districts into six. That threw incumbent Chris Perkins, a Democrat, into the same district as US Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican. Since Representative Perkins would have had to explain 514 overdrafts at the House bank, he decided to retire.

Another retiree is Rep. Larry Hopkins in Kentucky's Sixth District. And in the First District, voters retired incumbent Carroll Hubbard in the primary. Representative Hubbard had 152 House bank overdrafts and a wife running for a House seat in another district. Those two factors caused his downfall.

"The bounced checks alone wouldn't have done it. But there was a real Kingfish attitude," says Paul Weber, chairman of the political science department at the University of Louisville. "I really think people resented his wife running in a neighboring district." Mrs. Hubbard lost, too.

Only one House seat appears really safe. Rep. William Natcher is running again in Kentucky's Second District after nearly 40 years of service. So much for the theory of an all-out voter backlash against incumbents.

Depending on conditions, the remaining House incumbents could see a horse race.

If Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton runs strongly here, Republican incumbents Jim Bunning in the Fourth and Mr. Rogers in the Fifth could face strong Democratic challenges. The National Republican Congressional Committee has placed both men on its "watch list" of endangered Republicans. Their newly drawn districts don't help.

If President Bush runs well, then Democrat Rep. Ron Mazzoli could face a tough challenge in the Third District. Kentucky's Third District, incorporating Louisville and most of surrounding Jefferson County, says a lot about the US anti-incumbent mood.

On the face of it, Representative Mazzoli's reelection prospects appear dim. Hit by redistricting

He has been hit by redistricting. State legislators folded the heavily Republican northeastern part of Jefferson County into his inner-city, mostly Roman Catholic district. Also, Mazzoli is an 11-term incumbent and part of the Democratic power structure. He has already faced tough challenges in 1988 and 1990. This year, his opponent is Susan Stokes, a two-term state representative who has won high marks for her independence on issues and her willingness to challenge the Democratic state leadership.

But Mazzoli is running stronger than he appears. He is well liked here as an honest legislator, attentive to his district.

"Even though I was a registered Republican, every time I got a promotion I got a hand-written note from Mazzoli," marvels Mr. Dumeyer.

"The issue of abortion - for, or against - is immaterial to the people who want help with their needs," says Jim Burke, Democratic director of the Jefferson County Board of Elections. "If you have done good service for 22 years, you have got a great base" of support.

Mazzoli has not had a single bounced check in the House banking scandal. Two years ago, he stopped accepting contributions from political action committees. This year, he limited personal donations to $100.

Mazzoli's popularity offers Stokes only a very slim target. She is hoping for a bulls-eye.

At the Louisville Kiwanis Club, she says she's glad Mazzoli didn't bounce a check. "I didn't want to be tempted to use that as an issue, because I don't think it is an issue," she says.

The businessmen are attentive. Stokes's conservative views should play well with this crowd. But it saves its loudest applause for her pro-choice stance. Mazzoli opposes abortion.

Political observers expect the issue to force crossover votes on both sides. Back every weekend

Mazzoli is not taking the election lightly. He returns to the district every weekend and the occasional weeknight. He is even trying to redefine incumbency.

"I am hoping, frankly, that the people want me as an agent of change," he said in a telephone interview. "Incumbency is a state of mind. Incumbency is a carelessness."

And Mazzoli is certainly not careless.

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