Both parties keep close eye on 1986 US Senate race in Idaho. Republican Symms tries to keep seat from Democratic challenger Evans

Idaho Sen. Steve Symms' reelection drive is more than a fight to maintain Republican control of Idaho's United States Senate delegation. With the Republican Party defending the US Senate majority it took from the Democrats in 1980, an incumbent like Senator Symms will be valuable to the GOP in 1986. Of the 34 Senate races next year, 22 will be for seats the Republicans now hold in their 53-seat majority.

For the Democrats, the 1986 election could be a chance to recapture the majority status they enjoyed for 26 years before 1980 and to take back the seat the late Sen. Frank Church held for 24 years.

Symms is facing a challenge from Idaho's Democratic Gov. John Evans. Although the election is still a year away, pollsters indicate the candidates are running a dead-even race right now.

While a Republican National Committee official says all the Senate races are equally important, candidate Evans's staff says the race holds special interest for both parties and their plans to control the US Senate in 1986.

``Obviously, it's a targeted race for both Democrats and Republicans, this is one of the top 10 races they talk about,'' says Evans campaign manager Kathi Rogers.

The Republicans see Symms as a strong candidate, because he learned how to stay in touch with his voters while serving in the House of Representatives for four terms. ``Symms certainly has been a very visible senator. . . ,'' says Bill Greener, deputy chief of staff for political operations at the Republican National Committee.

Democrats are looking to Evans to help break Republican control of the state's politics. As governor, Evans has had to contend with a veto-proof Republican Legislature since the 1984 election.

Despite the rising power of the Republicans, Democratic Rep. Richard Stallings unseated eight-term Republican incumbent George Hansen in the southern congressional district. This district is considerd one of the most conservative in the country.

If the Democrats can hold onto Mr. Stallings' seat and take back the seat Symms holds, they could break the grip Republicans now have on state politics.

``The threat is always there, though history says we've worked hard enough not to let that happen. The Republicans maintain the organizational edge in this state,'' says Symms chief of staff Phil Reberger.

Because Idaho has only two congressmen and two senators, a single-party delegation can be important. Symms stressed this last month at a fund-raiser in Boise where President Reagan spoke, asking his supporters to ``make it 100 percent'' in 1986.

``There are times when a delegation is listened to out of congressional courtesy on parochial matters . . . and it does help when you are united,'' Mr. Reberger says.

One of those parochial matters that promises to be a campaign issue is the farm-income crisis that is gripping Idaho and the rest of rural America. Symms, a fruit farmer from central Idaho, has taken a hard-line stance on farm supports, saying they should be eliminated to allow the free market to control prices.

Evans, a southern Idaho rancher, has taken a softer line on farm supports. He will stress his experience as governor -- working closely with the people in his state -- in dealing with the problems of Idaho farmers when he attacks Symms' record, says Ms. Rogers.

Out-of-state political-action committee (PAC) donations became an issue in the Symms-Church campaign in 1980, with both candidates charging that the other was beholden to wealthy out-of-state interests.

Symms has already raised more than $600,000 and PAC contributions made up about 40 percent of his funding after the first six months of 1985. Reberger says Symms' campaign will point out Evans's union PAC donations to highlight their differences on the issue.

Evans traveled to Washington this week to raise PAC money of his own at a fund-raiser hosted by former New York governor and ambassador to Britain W. Averell Harriman.

The candidates' stands on the right-to-work bill (passed by the Legislature last winter), which gives nonunionized workers the right to work a unionized job site, will also be an issue. Evans vetoed the bill and was overridden. Symms supports the bill, which will be on the 1986 general-election ballot in referendum form.

With little control over what the issues will be a year hence, the candidates' staffs are preparing a battle of volunteers.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan's coattails may have been a factor in Symms upset of Church, Reberger says. Idaho gave Reagan the second-highest percentage of any state in 1980 and '84. But a massive volunteer organization was responsible for getting the voters out.

Ms. Rogers says the campaign will be won by the candidate with the best volunteer organization. ``It's gonna be won or lost on the street.''

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