More Democrat Blues: House Speaker May Lose

Anti-incumbent fervor dogs Tom Foley

TOM FOLEY, looking comfortable in a gray suit and cheerful yellow tie, appears unruffled as he greets constituents at an open house at Thermoguard Equipment Company, which is celebrating the expansion of its plant here.

But after being reelected in this conservative district every two years since 1964, the Democratic congressman faces perhaps the toughest race of his career. Polls show him behind, and though he has come back before, analysts see several forces weighing against him.

As Speaker of the House, he is a symbol of Congress at a time when the legislative branch has reached a new low in public esteem. His position also ties him closely to President Clinton, whose popularity is sagging; and some voters say Mr. Foley has been working more for the Clinton agenda than for their own on issues such as health care, taxes, and gun control.

Perhaps worst of all, the Speaker sued to overturn a state ballot initiative limiting congressional terms to six consecutive years in the House and 12 in the Senate. The limit will would not affect Foley until 1998. A poll in the district found that 74 percent thought he should drop the lawsuit and 64 percent supported the idea of national term limits by constitutional amendment.

``That's the one that broke the camel's back,'' says Jason Hansen, who says he voted for Foley in 1992 but won't this year. Mr. Hansen, a Thermoguard employee, says that while he does not support the concept of term limits, Foley should not have opposed a majority of state voters. Similarly, Hansen says he does not want to own an assault weapon, but ``when the government says I can't have one, that annoys me.''

Such concerns make the climate ripe for a victory by Republican George Nethercutt, who promises to spend no more than six years in the House and opposes gun control.

In the Sept. 20 primary, Republicans won 65 percent of the vote in an open primary to Foley's 35 percent. Some of this margin represents disproportionate Republican turnout to choose a nominee.

Still, a poll of likely voters the following week by Elway Research of Seattle put Mr. Nethercutt over Foley by a 51 to 37 margin, with 12 percent undecided.

Since the Speaker is the third-ranking elected official in the land behind the president and vice president, the race here will measure the strength of the nation's anti-incumbent mood and the appeal of a conservative agenda that includes term limits, a line-item veto, tax cuts, and a balanced-budget amendment.

Republicans expect to be the big winners this year - perhaps even recapturing control of Congress from the Democrats. Unseating Foley would be a symbolic coup, whether or not the larger GOP effort succeeds. No sitting Speaker has been deposed since 1860. Of more than a hundred hotly contested House races, this will likely be the most closely watched.

Some here are loath to kiss Foley's clout goodbye. ``You'd be pretty stupid to vote out the Speaker of the House,'' says Chuck Sullivan, a Thermoguard employee as he fills a plate with potato salad, beans, and a burger.

Others, however, are equally adamant about overturning the status quo. ``I'd like to see a businessman in there instead of a congressman,'' says Dave Sexton, another company worker.

David Olson, a political science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, expects a close race. ``This is going to be a catfight,'' Mr. Olson says. ``Tom Foley's strategy has got to be to... present himself as just regular Tom,'' not as an insider with lots of seniority that can benefit the district.

Aiding Foley will be his dignified demeanor, low-key campaign style, and years of personal contact with people all over the sprawling Fifth District, which covers the eastern third of the state.

Nethercutt, despite his lead in the polls, describes himself as ``scared'' and behind Foley in fund-raising. Still, the attorney has advantages of his own, starting with a simple message that appeals to the conservative base of this district.

``There is a perception in this district and nationally that government has gotten too big, out of control,'' Nethercutt says in an interview.

Analysts say that unlike past challengers to Foley, Nethercutt matches the Speaker's low-key style. In the primary, voters rejected two of these former challengers in favor of Nethercutt, who is seeking the post for the first time. ``There's a pent-up energy here for a new face'' in Congress, Nethercutt says.

Foley's district, where golden range land stretches out toward tree-studded hills, is known as the Inland Empire. Spokane, the second-largest city in the state, holds the majority of voters.

The area has been booming in recent years as newcomers, many of whom are from California, set up businesses alongside the traditional industries of agriculture, mining, ranching, and aluminum smelting. Observers say the new residents, seeking a haven from crime and overregulation of business, are likely to be Nethercutt supporters.

Also mobilizing for the GOP are National Rifle Association members. Hansen, the Thermoguard employee who opposes the Speaker, wore a sticker saying, ``I'm the NRA and I vote.''

``A lot of my friends are getting registered'' he says, so they can vote against Foley.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.