WASHINGTON — FIVE states hold special elections for Congress this spring, but the eyes of the nation's politicians are all on Texas.
The Lone Star State will choose a United States senator to fill the boots of Lloyd Bentsen, who was picked to be secretary of the treasury by President Clinton in January. Bob Krueger, a Texas railroad commissioner, was selected by Gov. Ann Richards (D) to stand in for Mr. Bentsen until an open primary can be held on May 1. Now Senator Krueger is battling to retain his job against 23 challengers, including three well-known Republicans and a wealthy Democrat with ties to Ross Perot.
Much is at stake for the Clinton White House. Democrats, with Krueger in the saddle, currently hold a 57-to-43 margin in the Senate over Republicans. But the GOP is using its 43 votes and the filibuster to stymie Mr. Clinton's economic stimulus plan, and threaten other major policy initiatives, like higher taxes and health care reform. It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster.
A Texas loss by Krueger would not only embarrass the White House, and Bentsen, but it would give GOP leaders fresh momentum to derail Clinton's most significant proposals. To help avert a GOP victory, Bentsen flies into Texas later this week to campaign for Krueger at two rallies scheduled for Saturday.
So far, public-opinion polls in Texas show no one has the race locked up. An early April survey by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research found Krueger with support from 27 percent of Texas voters. Trailing him were three major Republican opponents - state Treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison, with 21 percent; US Rep. Jack Fields, 13 percent; and US Rep. Joe Barton, 8 percent.
A wild card is Democrat Richard Fisher, whose personal wealth and ties to Mr. Perot make him a threat to both Krueger and the Republicans. Mr. Fisher drew 8 percent, up from zero three months ago in the Mason-Dixon survey.
Clinton policies, like higher taxes and putting gays in the military, could hurt Krueger. Polls show Texans disapproving of the president's job performance by a 57-to-39 percent margin. Kate Walsh O'Beirne, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says, "Bob Krueger is on the Texas campaign trail desperate to convince voters that he's never even met Bill Clinton."
The Texas race has virtually overshadowed four special elections for the House of Representatives. In Mississippi, Democrat Bennie Thompson last week nabbed a seat that became vacant when Clinton chose Rep. Mike Espy (D) of Mississippi to be his secretary of agriculture. With voting almost strictly along racial lines, Mr. Thompson got 55 percent in a district that is 58 percent black. His Republican opponent, Hayes Dent, got few black votes. Thompson will be only the second black to represent Mississippi
in Congress since the 19th century. Mr. Espy was the first.
In three other states, House contests remain unsettled.
In northern California, Democrat Sam Farr, a member of the state Assembly, is contesting the 17th District against Republican Bill McCampbell, a Pebble Beach attorney. The 17th is Democratic territory, a seat formerly held by Clinton's director of the Office of Management and Budget, Leon Panetta. Mr. Farr will be heavily favored in the June 8 runoff.
Ohio's Second District, on the other hand, is the most Republican turf in the Buckeye State. That makes Rob Portman, the Republican nominee, an overwhelming favorite to retain this congressional seat, which was given up by Rep. Bill Gradison when he became president of a health-insurance industry organization. Both Mr. Portman and his Democratic foe, Lee Hornberger, are Cincinnati lawyers. The runoff is May 4.
That day, there also will be a special election in Wisconsin's First District. Vacated by Rep. Les Aspin (D) when he became secretary of defense, the First swings back and forth in presidential elections: It supported Ronald Reagan (R) in 1984 and Michael Dukakis (D) in 1988, for example.
Democratic state Rep. Peter Barca will be favored, however, when he clashes with Republican businessman Mark Neumann next month, though the race could get interesting. Mr. Neumann has jogged across the district to demonstrate his energy, while Mr. Barca has trod a more traditional route, emphasizing his skill at legislating.