STUNNED by a series of election losses during the past 20 months, Democrats are heaping blame for their deepening political problems on the ``radical right.''
Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, charges that ``radical'' groups like the Christian Coalition, U.S. Term Limits, and Americans for Tax Reform are ``working hand in glove'' with Republicans to defeat Democrats. Such organizations, he says, are funneling ``unreported, undisclosed, unlimited corporate money into Republican-sponsored voter persuasion campaigns.''
These ``shadow'' efforts skirt campaign-spending laws, he says, and have recently helped the GOP win special congressional elections in Kentucky and Oklahoma.
``U.S. Term Limits and Americans for Tax Reform spent over $50,000 each in each election on radio commercials and direct mail,'' Mr. Fazio says. ``The ads clearly promoted the Republican candidates and made negative statements about the Democrats....''
Democrats are demanding that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) crack down on such ``unlawful conduct,'' which they claim permits Republican candidates to exceed legal limits on campaign contributions.
Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, says Fazio's complaints reflect ``religious bigotry'' against evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics who are rapidly expanding their role in politics.
``Our members are working for lower taxes, term limits, reduced government, better schools, and tougher laws against drug dealers and violent criminals,'' Mr. Reed says. ``It is a sad day when a Democratic leader attacks that mainstream agenda.''
The Christian Coalition distributed tens of thousands of election fliers to churches prior to the Kentucky special election in which the Republican candidate, Baptist minister Ron Lewis, staged a surprising upset. The fliers outlined the policy positions of the Rev. Lewis and his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Joseph Prather. Democrats complain Mr. Prather's positions were distorted.
Reed scoffs at such criticisms. ``The Democrats have lost nine major elections since Bill Clinton won the White House,'' he says. ``Rather than accept responsibility for their losses, the Democrats are engaging in name-calling, scapegoating, and religious bigotry.''
But Democrats are pushing their case before the FEC. In a June 8 letter, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) singled out the ``radical'' U.S. Term Limits for engaging in ``a pattern of continuing violations of the federal campaign laws.'' Democratic officials cited campaign activity by the group in Oklahoma prior to the May 10 special congressional election, charging it attacked the Democratic candidate.
The Oklahoma race pitted Republican Frank Lucas, a state representative, against Democrat Dan Webber Jr., who had worked as an aide to US Sen. David Boren (D). Although the district has twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, Mr. Lucas won by nearly 11,000 votes.
DCCC notes that U.S. Term Limits ran a 30-second radio spot in Oklahoma that said, in part: ``Only one candidate for Congress in the Sixth District is for term limits for career politicians.... Frank Lucas sides with the vast majority of us. Lucas supports term limits and a true citizen legislature. The other candidate, Dan Webber, sides with the career politicians.... Help convince both candidates to support term limits.''
DESPITE the bipartisan appeal in the final sentence, Democrats insist the commercial crossed the line by ``advocating the election of a particular candidate.'' DCCC says it is unfair that their political candidates must comply fully with the laws limiting spending and contributions, while these groups that are helping Republican candidates ``are financed without regard to [such] limits....'' Democrats are asking the FEC either to grant an injunction or dismiss the case quickly so they can seek relief from the courts.
Paul Jacob, executive director of U.S. Term Limits, rejected DCCC's accusations, and charged that DCCC was trying to ``thwart the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans.''
Mr. Jacob says: ``Once again, it's the people on one side and a legion of lawyers on the other. While term limits continues to win at the ballot box, the establishment continues to respond with outlandish legal attacks.'' The ads in Oklahoma were ``exactly what the courts have defined as permissible issue discussion,'' Jacob says. ``I am surprised that the DCCC would attempt to impede our First Amendment right to undertake such activities.''
The dispute indicates the high stakes in this fall's congressional elections. If current trends continue, analysts predict Democrats could drop approximately 25 seats in the House of Representatives. The party currently holds a 256-to-178 edge over Republicans. Democratic leaders worry that if the GOP grows to more than 200 seats in November, Republicans could team up with conservative Democrats to set the agenda for the next Congress. That would be a dramatic setback, not only for the party, but also for President Clinton. Some Republicans are even dreaming of soon winning their first majority in the House since the early 1950s.