Keeping the House: Democrats Grip Seats

With voters angry at Congress, the majority party is not taking reelection for granted

WHAT do you do if you're a member of the House of Representatives, a Democrat, and you want to keep your seat?

Don't apologize (except for bad checks). Take any challenger seriously. Shake a lot of hands back in the home district and remind the folks what you've done for them. And start now.

That's what Democratic strategists see as the best way to keep the party firmly in control of the House come next January.

Take Bill Alexander, a long-time Democratic House member from Arkansas. He goes into his race with big pluses and big minuses. As a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, he can steer homewards a lot of "pork," such as highway and water projects.

But as one of the longest-serving members (first elected in 1968) he's about as incumbent as they come, and will have to avoid appearing defensive about it. Mr. Alexander also made the reported list of top 24 check-kiters. So far, his main message on that score is that his accountant is doing an audit. There will be a "considerable difference" in the number of overdrafts when the review is complete, says his campaign manager, H. T. Moore.

A former staff aide is running against Alexander in the primary. And four days before the registration deadline, no Republicans have declared for the seat.

Overall, the House Democrats start with a lot of leeway - they hold 268 seats to the Republicans' 166 - and they freely admit that their overwhelming majority may be pared down a bit.

"We've got all the seats we're going to get," says Les Francis, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

But there's a long leap between losing some seats and losing the leadership. "Our aim," says Mr. Francis, "is to maintain effective control of the House. Only one vote matters, the vote for speaker."

The majority party not only gets to elect the speaker, but also appoint committee chairs and control the legislative agenda. Right now, it also gets to lock horns with President Bush, stymying much legislation and creating the gridlock in government that has contributed to an all-time high in anti-Congress feeling among voters.

Revelations about congressional perks (such as penalty-free bank overdrafts) and misdeeds (such as alleged embezzlement and cocaine sales from the House post office) has also turned off the electorate.

But the anti-incumbent mood threatens everyone in office, from the president on down. And the Democrats say they're no more vulnerable than Republicans.

The underlying truth, say Democrats, is that the reason for the Democrats' huge House majority is that the party produces "better candidates." The party doesn't need a GOPAC - House minority leader Newt Gingrich's plan to get Republicans into local office so they can ultimately run for Congress and challenge the Democrats' House majority - because there's already a Democratic "farm team" of state legislators and officials ready to step up to House and Senate seats.

According to the DCCC, roughly 7,000 state legislators are Democrats, compared with 4,000 Republicans.

Democratic strategists display a combination of confidence and terror over this fall's election. The confidence comes from the party's proven track record of 38 straight years of controlling the House; the terror, from the voters' ugliest mood in memory.

"We're good at local races," says Democratic strategist Robert Squier. "The trouble is, we localize national races. The [Republicans] make the opposite mistake. They always nationalize races."

The Republican Party will soon unveil "attack ads" highlighting the fact that the House bank scandal happened under the Democrats' watch. But Democrats don't seem too concerned. Their argument: Congress may be terribly unpopular, but voters don't vote for Congress as a whole. And they don't really worry about who the leadership is - they worry about what their congressman is doing for them.

The key now is not to take reelection - including the primary - for granted. Rep. Beverly Byron, a Maryland Democrat who lost her March 10 primary, didn't hire a media consultant until the Thursday before the vote. Her loss, along with those of other Democratic incumbents, like Illinois Sen. Alan Dixon, have given all incumbents a wake-up call.

More Democrats than Republicans face challengers in their primaries, which could be a blessing in disguise, say Democrats. It could clear away the least viable incumbents and save their seats for the Democrats. And it leaves the survivors "battle tested," and better prepared to take on their Republican challengers.

"If I were working on a House campaign, my slogan would be, m the baby, not the bathwater,'" says Democratic media consultant David Garth. "I also wouldn't be defensive about being a member of Congress. There's plenty of bad, but there is also good." Second of two articles. Yesterday: Republicans' strategy for gaining House seats.

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