Sounds of Voter Revolt Cause Halls of Congress to Tremble
WASHINGTON — THE walls are bare. Photos, including the ones with Ronald Reagan and George Bush, are packed. Boxes of law books are ready to be hauled away. Rep. Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, whipped at home in the Republican primary, is preparing to leave Congress after a distinguished 26-year career.
Mr. Vander Jagt need not feel alone. Experts predict 120, or 150, or even 200 of his fellow lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, could be swept out of office next week in the biggest House-cleaning in modern history.
The recession, the midnight pay raise, the tax deal, the banking scandal, the perquisites, the tax-free junkets to sunny climes have created an enormous anti-incumbent storm. It threatens to demolish many political careers.
Charles Cook, a leading analyst, says this is one of the toughest years for predictions. The general consensus: Republicans will probably gain five to 25 seats in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, the Democrats could gain two to five seats. But no one feels very confident.
Why the uncertainty?
"There is a vicious, powerful, anti-incumbent mood that is stronger than any of the party experts or the media has detected," Vander Jagt says. "It is ... more deep than people realize."
Vander Jagt should know. A prominent party leader, he gave the keynote address in Detroit when President Reagan was nominated for president in 1980.
As chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, he is the party's top man in charge of electing more Republicans to Congress.
Now, he has been stiff-armed by his own voters. It was a painful loss. His opponent, businessman Peter Hoekstra campaigned on a bicycle. Vander Jagt outspent him 10 to 1, but got only 40 percent of the votes.
It is that kind of year, and it is sending a shudder through both major political parties.
Marcia Hale, political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, predicts that at least 130 to 140 House members will be gone after Tuesday. That includes 86 retirements - many of them members who did not want to risk a fight in this unusual election year.
Ms. Hale predicts that her party will lose 20 to 25 seats. A number of analysts agree with Hale that there are two dynamics pulling at the electorate this year.
One is a growing preference among voters for Democrats in Congress. When asked the generic question: "Do you prefer to vote for a Democrat or a Republican," voters give Democrats at least a 10-point advantage.
But when voters are asked: "Do you prefer a new face or an incumbent," the new face wins. Since Democrats have a 100-seat advantage over Republicans, they are the majority of the incumbents. So they wonder: When voting day comes, will voters be leaning toward new faces or toward Democrats? No one dares to guess.
Hale is telling even the most senior Democrat: "Go back home and run as if this were your first election to Congress."
ALTHOUGH Republicans are expected to gain at least a few House seats, Mr. Cook says the party is bracing for disappointment. After all, this was the year some GOP leaders dreamed of taking over.
First, there was the new census. Because of shifting populations, 19 seats were stripped from slow-growing, mostly Northern states, dominated by Democrats, and moved to fast-growing, Republican-oriented states, mostly in the Sun Belt. The GOP hoped to get most of those new seats.
Second, a year ago, George Bush was enjoying 80 percent popularity, and it seemed as though he were going to mow down the Democrats as easily as he leveled Saddam Hussein's army. Because of that, Republicans recruited a large batch of attractive candidates.
Then the Gulf-war euphoria wore off and voters focused on the 1990 tax deal with Congress and on the recession.
Dreams of taking over the House went "poof."
Now all Vander Jagt will predict is that Republicans could lose as many as five seats, or gain as many as 50. But he still dreams of what might have been.
He says: "[My] prediction of a Republican majority would come true if he [Bush] were at 80 percent [popularity], and 10 points ahead [of Bill Clinton]."
The congressman says the Bush campaign's biggest mistake was not making the Democratic Congress its main target.
"[Harry] Truman in '48 was in as deep a trouble as Bush was six weeks ago. And he started running against the `do-nothing' Republican Congress. And even though Truman just barely made it, [the Democrats] gained 72 seats in the House."
Bush failed to follow in Truman's footsteps. Vander Jagt blames Republican strategists who decided that attacking the Democratic Congress was too partisan a strategy.
Meanwhile, angry voters lie in wait.
It all reminds analyst Cook of a saying by Winston Churchill that seems applicable to Congress members who survive next Tuesday: "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result."