The Year of 'Countertrend' Candidates

Pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans running in record numbers.

Loy Sneary, a candidate for Congress in southeastern Texas, is pro-business, pro-guns, and pro-life. He's a rancher and farmer, a former county judge, and has served on various committees at his local Methodist church. He's a graduate of the FBI firearms school and an ex-Navy man.

He's also a Democrat.

In the run-up to tomorrow's elections, both major parties have been counting on a large contingent of "countertrend" candidates like Mr. Sneary - men and women whose positions buck the predominant ideologies of their parties - to give them an edge in an increasingly close contest for Congress.

Both parties, with varying degrees of fanfare, have enlarged their tents. It is a sign of how party identities are increasingly being blurred, and how voters' choices are less party-driven and more oriented toward individual issues and candidates.

Though no hard numbers exist, Republican leaders claim the Democrats have fielded more antiabortion candidates than ever. Democratic activists acknowledge that some of the most competitive House races feature pro-life Democrats.

Republicans working to elect pro-abortion-rights candidates say they too are having a banner year, with more nominees than at any time this decade.

"We've certainly followed a strategy this year of recruiting candidates who fit their districts, not a larger ideology," says Olivia Morgan, spokeswoman for the committee that works to elect Democrats to Congress.

Republicans have been less vocal than Democrats about the range of positions held by their candidates. But according to Ann Stone, head of Republicans for Choice, which helps candidates who favor some abortion rights, at least 84 pro-choice Republicans have been nominated for House, Senate, and governors' seats, more than any time since her group began surveying candidates in 1990.

There is, of course, nothing new to the idea of finding candidates whose views match those of their constituents. The Democrats controlled Congress for 40 years by electing a large contingent of conservative Democrats, mainly from the South.

MOST of that breed are now extinct, having either retired, lost their seats, or switched parties. But there are some Southern districts - such as the one in Texas Sneary is running for - that the Democrats have a shot at winning back.

Pro-life Democrats who have a chance at taking over Republican seats include Ken Lucas in Kentucky, Marjorie McKeithen in Louisiana, and Patrick Casey in Pennsylvania. Seats for Alabama and Idaho could also go to pro-life Democrats. On the flip side, abortion-rights Republicans have a shot at seizing Democratic seats in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

For most voters, abortion isn't the most important issue in the election. Rather, it has come to stand for the broad range of social issues that tend to identify candidates. Holding the "correct" position for a district certainly doesn't guarantee election.

Often, especially in local races, candidates hold the same views on many issues. But for candidates of the challenger party, "it helps them from being undercut in the first five minutes," says Amy Walter, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

In Sneary's race, both candidates are pro-life, so abortion isn't an issue. That allows Sneary to focus on the issues he thinks can win him the election, such as aid to drought-stricken farmers - funding his opponent, Rep. Ron Paul (R), voted against. Sneary, in fact, was recruited for the race by local agricultural officials, including Republicans.

"Party affiliation didn't matter," he says, speaking on his car phone while driving around the sprawling, Massachusetts-size district he hopes to represent. "They wanted someone with a rural perspective."

So, in this day of freelance, issue-specific politics, how does a person even figure out which party to associate with? Sneary says he's a Democrat because he believes there are people in society who need assistance, "and we need to look after them." On education, he's concerned that vouchers for private school - a favorite GOP remedy - might hurt the nation's public schools.

The blurring of ideological lines has forced some rethinking on party activists.

"It causes us to reexamine what is at the core of being a Democrat," says Ms. Morgan of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. How, for example, are the conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dogs really Democrats? The answer, she says, is a commitment to populist issues, such as the $500-per-child tax credit.

Republicans say the resurgence of pro-life Democrats is a sign that Republican views are winning. "It's an acknowledgment on the part of Democratic leaders that their ideas are out of sync with mainstream America," says Mary Crawford, spokeswoman for the committee that helps elect Republicans to Congress.

Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., has a different interpretation: Congress, he says, has settled into a new, rough equilibrium, with the controlling party, currently the Republicans, holding the majority by only a handful of seats. With such a narrow majority, each party is doing whatever it can to hold onto what it has and win new seats at the same time.

In the process, he says, each party has become increasingly pragmatic on the old litmus-test issues. That's particularly tricky for the Republicans, whose religious conservative wing is adamantly antiabortion. Therefore, Mr. Pitney says, "Republicans are positioning themselves more carefully on abortion. Their line is, 'permit but discourage.' "

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