House Election Losses Reveal Flaws in GOP Strategy

IT'S hardly news any more: The Republicans lost two more races this week - in Texas and California - for the House of Representatives. Political analyst Norman Ornstein calls it ``another instance of the Republicans blowing a great opportunity.''

The GOP has dropped four of six special House elections this year, and continues to trail the Democrats by a heavy margin on Capitol Hill.

Yet out of this tribulation, there are lessons emerging for the GOP, which has languished in the minority in the House since 1953. Here's what experts say the Republicans must do:

Lesson No. 1: Get better candidates.

Too often, Democrats field a proved vote-getter with high name recognition who will almost certainly win against a Republican who starts the race two or three steps behind.

That was the case in California's House race, where Democratic Assemblyman Gary Condit rolled up 57 percent of the vote.

Charles Cook Jr., editor of ``The Cook Political Report,'' says Mr. Condit ``was in a very strong situation from Day 1,'' and Republican Clare Berryhill, although prominent, found himself running uphill. Condit had built a reputation as an iconoclast in his district by defying Democratic leadership with his antitax, pro-gun policies.

Lesson No. 2: Run candidates more than once.

Dr. Ornstein says Republicans need the patience to run a candidate twice - first, just to get him known in a district; then in the next election, when he'll have a chance to win.

That was the bitter lesson in the Texas 12th District, formerly occupied by House Speaker Jim Wright. Although Mr. Wright was having problems with ethics charges, the GOP failed to field a candidate against him in 1988.

It was only after Wright resigned that the GOP challenged the Democrats with a political neophyte, Bob Lanier. Even in this mostly Democratic district, Dr. Lanier came within less than 2,000 votes of defeating Democrat Pete Geren, who was strongly supported by Wright and Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D).

If Lanier had run against Wright in 1988, the extra political seasoning and exposure might have tipped the balance in his favor this week, experts say.

Lesson No. 3: The ethics issue won't automatically give seats to the Republicans.

Both of this week's elections were triggered by the forced resignations of Democrats, Wright and former Democratic whip Tony Coelho of California, who were accused of financial irregularities.

At one time, Republicans crowed that the stream of ethics charges against Democrats - most recently against Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank for hiring a male prostitute - could be the Democrats' downfall.

But even in the districts where Democrats were forced to resign, Republicans were unable to capitalize on the ethics issue.

Mr. Cook says the most encouraging aspect for the GOP was the closeness of the Texas race in a city, Fort Worth, ``where Democrats shouldn't have problems.'' But a slow, steady movement toward the GOP was already apparent in the much of the South, where erosion among white Democratic voters has been ongoing since the 1960s.

Mr. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told reporters Wednesday that he isn't sure the GOP can make big gains in the House without a change in the way money is raised. Right now, all the advantages go to incumbents, usually Democrats.

One Ornstein suggestion: Allow challengers to raise $100,000 in seed money by accepting contributions up to $10,000 from an individual. Then the current limit of $1,000 would go into effect.

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