Election in Search of Candidates

Strong economy, political complacency lead to largest number of uncontested races for House since 1958.

It's the weekend, and like many incumbent congressmen, Rep. Lloyd Doggett is rushing home to his Texas district just weeks before the election. His schedule is packed: the South Austin Tejano Democratic Club on Friday, the Sierra Club on Sunday, and a trip to the barber shop somewhere in between.

But for all the rushing about, Mr. Doggett is a virtual shoo-in this election. Like 94 other House members, he faces no major-party opposition this fall. To find an election with more uncontested congressional races, you'd have to go back 40 years, to the middle of the second term of a president called "Ike."

"I was surprised that I didn't have to face a Republican candidate this fall," he says, adding dryly that he does have a "major Libertarian challenge" from Austinite Vince May.

With no strong need to campaign for himself, however, Representative Doggett has devoted his time to supporting other Democratic candidates, raising campaign money, and getting out the vote.

For all their professed disgust with Congress, most Americans will send the same representatives back to their old offices on Nov. 3. Only 40 of 435 House seats - fewer than 10 percent - will be close enough to watch down to the final count. The rest are uncontested or virtual blowouts, polls show.

The forces behind this status- quo atmosphere include everything from a strong economy to the relatively low level of interest in off-year elections. And while debate about issues and voter turnout may suffer because of the high number of noncompetitive races, election experts warn against sounding alarm bells about the health of American democracy. The electoral mood simply goes through cycles, they say, and this is a calm one.

"It's not a question of the sky is falling," says Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

In many cases, the parties have approached this election with a "wait till next year" attitude. "Neither party has been falling all over itself to take on incumbents," says Amy Walter, an elections analyst at the Cook Political Report in Washington. "If you're a politician and you have to give up a safe seat to run against an incumbent when the economy is good, you might say, 'Mmm, maybe I'll wait for 2000.' "

Searching for trends in voting behavior is a tricky business. But even so, the numbers offer some telling clues about America's electoral mood. Most of the uncontested seats are currently held by Republicans (57 out of 95) and most are clustered in the South and Southwest (18 in Florida, 11 in Texas, and 6 in Louisiana). Given these clues, some experts say the relative calm of Election '98 could be a sign that Americans are satisfied with the Republican-led Congress.

"It reflects the political realignment of the South," says Dr. Mann "In the old days, you had a one-party Democratic South and now you have a one-party Republican South."

In addition, the cycle of electoral moods depends on the economic and political situations of the day. After Vietnam and Watergate, for example, from 1974 to 1982, voters showed their anger by throwing elected officials into early retirement. Calm returned during the Reagan years, and from 1984 to '88 almost 99 percent of incumbents - Democrats and Republicans - were reelected. The anti-incumbent mood returned in 1990, tossing out President Bush in 1992 and then the Democratic Congress in '94, and now the cycle is returning to relative calm.

What do candidates do with their time, when they don't have a real race at home? Most spend time campaigning for others, raising funds, and pushing harder for their party's agenda, says Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman for unopposed Rep. Dick Armey, a Texas Republican and House majority leader.

Representative Armey plans to spend plenty of time between now and election day campaigning for others. Thirty-six campaign events are planned for the last three weeks of October. "That's three a day. He'll be working as hard as a West Texas mill," says Mr. Wilkinson.

For Republican activist Anne Clutterbuck, having no Democratic challenger against Rep. Bill Archer (R) of Texas means having more time to encourage local voters to support other Republicans in tight state races.

"It's easier than normal," says Mrs. Clutterbuck, who runs the local Archer campaign from her house. So while Representative Archer, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has spent his time out of the district, backing Republicans across the country, Clutterbuck has scurried about, reminding Republicans not to let their guard down. "In times like these," she says, "it's easy to get apathetic."

Unlike most uncontested incumbents, who have held their seats for years or even decades, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D) is a freshman, a first-termer. Maybe that's why he has walked the blocks of El Paso and held rallies as if he were running against Newt Gingrich himself.

"You never want to take anyone lightly," says the former El Paso Border Patrol chief, who will face a Libertarian, but no Republican, this November.

That said, Mr. Reyes plans trips to the mainly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley, to Corpus Christi, and even to New Mexico to help other Democrats raise funds and get out the Hispanic vote. "I'm looking at the year 2000, and the prospects of having presidential candidates stop in El Paso. If we failed to bring out the vote, then [presidential candidates] aren't going to stop here."

Indeed, if Republicans and Democrats can agree on anything, it is the danger of voter apathy. For his part, Doggett has heard that Republicans didn't field a strong candidate against him in order to reduce the level of Democratic turnout. But so what? he asks. "It's a negative for the Democratic Party only if it works."

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