Unchallenged Senators Get Free Political Ride

Lack of competitors in key races troubles some experts who say public is deprived of a choice

IT'S more than a week before election day, but already the results of four United States Senate races can be reported: Sam Nunn will win in Georgia.

John Warner will win in Virginia.

Thad Cochran will win in Mississippi.

David Pryor will win in Arkansas.

How is this known? It's easy. None of the four men has major party opposition.

``This is unprecedented,'' says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. Dr. Sabato is one of several experts troubled by the lack of competitors for powerful Senate seats.

This is the first election in modern times in which so many seats have gone unchallenged, analysts say. Two of the senators with free rides, Mr. Nunn and Mr. Pryor, are Democrats. The other two, Mr. Warner and Mr. Cochran, are Republicans.

Sabato suggests ``the costs of running for office are so high, the incumbents are so well known, that the parties are discouraged from running challengers.''

But party officials say it's just practical politics.

``We tried recruiting early to run someone against Sam Nunn,'' says Wendy Burnley of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. ``It's difficult. He's well liked in Georgia. . . . This was just not the time.''

Anita Dunn of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sounds a similar refrain: ``Some people thought John Warner was vulnerable. But we looked at that race very carefully, and Warner is not nearly as vulnerable as the conventional wisdom says.'' So Democrats bowed out.

Sabato says money was a key factor in Virginia: ``Democrats didn't want to spend a million or two [against Warner] in a hopeless cause.''

The effect of such decisions, however, will be to deprive millions of voters in those four states of a choice on Nov. 6. The absence of challengers will also take away the senators' opportunities to defend, and strengthen, their ideas in vigorous public debate.

This is glaringly apparent here in Atlanta, home of Senator Nunn's state campaign office. If you don't look hard, you'll miss it. There are no signs outside or in the lobby. Only on the seventh floor can you find a ``Sam Nunn'' bumper sticker glued unceremoniously to the office door.

Inside the office, four workers have little to challenge them: The phones ring just twice during a 15-minute stay. Not a single visitor comes in. The usual hubbub of an active campaign is missing.

The senator, who raised a $1.5 million political war chest just in case he had an opponent, will probably return the excess cash to his contributors after election day, suggests Gordon Giffin, his treasurer. Some money was spent three or four months ago to encourage voter registration. And there was some direct mail to voters. But that was about it.

Despite the lack of election hoopla, Mr. Giffin insists, ``There is an official campaign under way.'' Elections are more than just political conflict, he says. They are also opportunities for senators to report back to the people about what they have been doing, and about their views of the future. That's Nunn's goal.

Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University here, says Southern politics has seen this sort of thing before. ``Nunn is kind of like Richard Russell [Georgia's revered senator from 1931-71], perpetuating this [noncompetitive] tradition. Some senators pass into legendary status.''

When that happens, Dr. Black notes, it becomes nearly impossible for challengers - no matter what their party - to raise enough money for a strong race. So they just don't try.

But what's different now in the South is that for the first time, Republicans like Warner and Cochran are running without Democratic foes.

``That is setting everything upside down,'' Black says.

Is this cause for concern? ``Probably,'' Black says. ``That's so, even though if a Republican were challenging Nunn, it couldn't conceivably be a close contest. So Nunn wouldn't change the way he represents the state.''

Several party workers insist they see no unfavorable trend in all this.

For example, Ms. Dunn of the Democratic senatorial committee says the GOP's decision to skip Georgia this year makes good political sense. In just two years, Georgia's junior Democratic senator, Wyche Fowler, will be up for reelection. In addition, that will be a presidential-election year, when more Republicans turn out at the polls. ``Why run against Nunn, when they have Fowler coming up, plus a presidential year to help them out?'' she asks.

Ms. Burnley of the Republican senatorial committee seems to confirm that logic. ``Fowler will be targeted,'' she says.

The situation is similar in Arkansas, where Senator Pryor is getting a bye on Nov. 6. Dunn notes that Republicans already tried to defeat Pryor once before, in 1984 - a presidential year. Even though Ronald Reagan carried Arkansas, Democrat Pryor won with 57 percent of the vote.

``They gave it their best shot, and failed. This year, most Republicans felt they had a better shot at knocking off [Democratic Gov.] Bill Clinton. It was more attractive,'' and that's where the GOP is putting its cash.

Even so, some analysts remain uneasy. They point to Sen. John Kerry in Massachusetts and Sen. Mark Hatfield in Oregon, where both incumbents are suddenly and unexpectedly in trouble because of voter anger.

But no one will ever know what would have happened in Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, or Arkansas if voters had a choice.

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