GOP Stalks Democrats Who May Switch Parties

AFTER 40 years as the minority party in the House of Representatives, Republicans are daring to dream that this could be their year.

Even if they don't make the net gain of 40 seats in the November elections needed to win an outright majority, Republicans hope that if they get close, they can lure enough conservative Democrats into changing their party affiliation to tip the balance. (GOP chairman predicts gains, Page 3.)

``A number of Democrats have come up to Newt and said, `If you get close, I'll switch,' `` says Tony Blankley, press secretary to House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, who is in line to become House Republican leader in the next Congress - and Speaker of the House if the Republicans take over.

Mr. Blankley says four Democrats are ``firm'' about switching if needed and eight or nine ``maybes,'' but he won't name names. No Democratic members contacted would speak about this issue on the record. And none will say, even anonymously, if they would consider switching their affiliation if the Republicans got close.

The Democrats hold 256 of the House's 435 seats, to the Republicans' 178, plus one independent. Both parties are predicting Republican gains in the elections, with both anti-incumbent and anti-Democratic feeling running high, though Republican estimates run higher than Democrats' estimates.

But the Democratic leadership in Congress doesn't seem too worried about potential turncoats in their midst. ``My guess is it's hype,'' says a leadership aide. ``They're engaging in psychological warfare.''

Speculation heated up recently when the newspaper Roll Call published an article about potential party-switchers - conservative and moderate Democrats, mainly from the South - and a portrait gallery of ``Newt's Most Wanted.''

On the list were a committee chairman, Rep. Sonny Montgomery of Alabama, and eight subcommittee chairs, including Gary Condit of California, Ike Skelton of Missouri, Ralph Hall of Texas, Jimmy Hayes of Louisiana, and Bill Sarpalius of Texas. Those five rankled party loyalists when they voted against President Clinton's budget last May.

In all, 20 potential switchers were identified, 15 from a list compiled by two professors and five more through interviews with members of Congress.

The article hurt Gingrich's cause. Some Democrats on the list, such as Rep. L.F. Payne of Virginia, have used it in their reelection campaigns to show their distance from Clinton, and Republican challengers complained that the list appeared to be an endorsement from Gingrich.

Congressman Payne's opponent, George Landrith, was so peeved that he got Gingrich to send him a letter affirming Gingrich's support and calling Payne one of the ``most liberal Democrats in the House.''

Political observers say that if any switching takes place, it will happen only if the Republicans can then win control of the House. But even if the Republicans do get close on Nov. 8, a group switch is far from certain.

``Democrats and Republicans will engage in a bidding war if it gets close,'' says Prof. William Connelly Jr. of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., co-author of the study on potential switchers that Roll Call cited. The bidding could bring a high cost: If switchers came away with plum committee leadership jobs, for example, that could alienate loyal Republicans who have waited long for those jobs.

IT also remains far from certain that potential switchers even want to be Republicans - especially with the firebrand Gingrich as Speaker and Democrats in the White House. ``Even conservative Democrats aren't all that conservative,'' says Prof. John Pitney Jr. of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., the other co-author of the party-switcher study.

Furthermore, conservative Democrats in Congress could wield more clout serving as a swing bloc within the Democratic caucus than as Republicans.

Some Democratic aides have lately come to the view, admitted only in private, that it might be healthy for the Democrats to lose the House. The Democrats have taken their leadership for granted and forgotten how to accommodate minority views, they say, while Republicans have forgotten how to write legislation.

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