GOP in '96 - 3 Pluses, 1 Minus

REPUBLICANS' biggest victory last November, hands down, was winning control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. House Republicans had become the Rodney Dangerfields of American politics, getting little respect and disregarded by Republican and Democratic presidents alike.

Democrats must score a net gain of 16 seats next November to win back majority control, but there's a strong chance they will lose a special election in California, and that at least one more Democrat will switch parties, landing them 18 seats away before the general election rolls around. On paper, an 18-seat gain doesn't seem that difficult. It's just over a 4 percent gain.

Four factors, three mechanical and one environmental, should be kept in mind as the battle for House control ensues.

The first mechanical factor is retirements. Even in the worst of years for incumbents, it's usually easier for a party to hold onto an occupied seat than an open one. Very few House Republicans are expected to retire. Few want to give up their newfound influence, much less long-awaited committee or subcommittee chairmanships. The question is how many Democrats will retire. Should a disproportionate number do so, the party will have an exceedingly difficult time netting 18 seats. Nine House Democrats so far have announced they won't seek reelection. Only one is leaving a safe Democratic district. In contrast, only one of the five retiring Republicans is leaving a worrisome district behind.

The second factor is money. Democrats' long-held majority status meant committee and subcommittee chairmanships, with myriad interest groups forced to pay tribute. Business political-action committees that were dividing contributions fairly evenly between the two parties just a year ago now give mainly to Republicans. A recent Federal Election Commission report showed that during the first six months of 1995, five House Republican freshmen outraised Democratic baron John Dingell (D) of Michigan. Democrats who previously won by widely outspending GOP challengers will have to find new funding sources or make do with less.

Third is recruiting - fielding top-notch candidates in open districts or against incumbents. This is the peak of the House recruiting season, and go or no-go decisions by top potential candidates will greatly affect each party's chances in the 150 or so potentially competitive districts. Democrats have done well at recruiting against the dozen most endangered Republicans, but are having less success filling out their dance cards in other races. Republicans, conversely, have almost an embarrassment of riches. Potential candidates crowd GOP headquarters, convinced that if only they had run a year ago, they'd be in Congress today.

The one factor working in Democrats' favor is that enthusiasm for the Republican revolution seems to be waning fast. Recent national polls show that if House elections were held today, Democrats would run between 2 and 7 points ahead. Their theme that Republicans are going too far is beginning to resonate with voters. Charges that Republicans are "cutting Medicare to pay for tax cuts for the rich" seem to be taking hold, as are concerns about reduced social spending and scaling back of regulations ranging from environment to nursing homes. The playing field was tilted steeply in Republicans' favor last fall, had leveled out by late summer, and today seems slightly inclined toward Democrats. The tilt come next November is unknown, obviously, but GOP campaign pros admit they are seriously concerned. Perhaps they remember that the last two times they won control of the House, in 1946 and 1952, they lost their majorities in the very next elections.

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