National Themes Dominate in Local Races for Congress

Democrats set tone with early ad campaign

"All politics is local," Tip O'Neill once said. What the late House Speaker could have added was "usually."

For the second straight election, O'Neill's adage has been suspended, at least partially, as national forces and themes dominate the fierce contest for control of Congress.

The tables, though, have turned. Whereas two years ago, the Republican Party successfully rode a wave of national discontent to oust the ruling Democrats, this time it's the Democrats - and their labor union allies - who have taken the offensive.

Whether the Democrats can ride their wave back to control on Capitol Hill is another matter. The widespread anti-incumbent feeling of two years has dissipated. Anger has given way to apathy. And many Republican House members, mindful of what happened to their Democratic brethren two years ago, have worked hard to make their races local, highlighting what their man or woman in Washington has done for their constituents.

But there's no doubt the Democrats' message is dominant. "The election is so far on their terms," says Ken Rudin of the Hotline, a political newsletter based in Alexandria, Va. "The fact that Republicans have to defend themselves against trying to cut Medicare and gut the environment and throw out senior citizens means they don't have time to go on the offensive or make their case."

The key, analysts say, was to advertise early and often. President Clinton and the Democratic National Committee began a television blitz 16 months ago - the earliest a sitting president has ever begun airing reelection ads. And the Republicans barely responded. Facing no opposition in the primaries, Mr. Clinton could spend his vast war chest on ads aimed solely at the Republicans.

The president and the Democratic Party have aired $50 million worth of ads in 40 media markets. The nation's largest labor union, the AFL-CIO, has also deployed its own ad campaign, worth $35 million, against vulnerable Republicans.

The labor campaign has produced a backlash in some districts, with incumbents countering with ads about "big labor bosses" coming in and telling people how to vote. But "the Republicans are screaming, so I think it's having an impact," says Gary Jacobson, an expert on congressional races at the University of California at San Diego.

It was the regional diversity of the GOP's success two years ago that steered the Democrats and their labor allies toward a nationalized campaign. Congressional districts all over the country sent 73 new Republican members to Washington.

"For organized labor to attack them, it required that they have a national focus," says Bernadette Budde, a political analyst for BIPAC, the business and industry political action committee. "They couldn't just look at the Midwest or the South or the West, so the geography of that class set up what happened in '96."

The location of the vulnerable Republicans lent itself to media buys in cities like Des Moines, Iowa; Omaha, Neb.; Lansing, Mich.; Seattle, and Phoenix, "where they had a very good overlay of the congressional districts, Ms. Budde adds.

Most of the Democrats' early ad campaign escaped the notice - and scrutiny - of the beltway-bound national press corps.

Still, this election is not a perfect reverse of 1994. Two years ago, Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, making for a clean target. This year, rule is divided, a setup that voters say they prefer.

THE Republican Party, determined not to lose the majority it won in Congress after 40 years in the wilderness, will run an advertising campaign in all 50 states starting today. It warns voters not to give the Democrats a "blank check" by letting them rule Capitol Hill again. The implication is that Clinton will win reelection, but that's hardly a concession given polls showing a double-digit lead.

Locally, House members are fighting hard to prove O'Neill's adage really is right this year. Most are running away from any connection to the current - and highly unpopular - House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, and focusing on what they've done for the folks back home.

The more politically savvy freshmen have worked hard to build local coalitions and tailor their votes to their districts, not necessarily to the desires of the Republican leadership. Professor Jacobson in San Diego notes that his local representative, Brian Bilbray, a GOP freshman, has done a decent job at that. He notes, for example, that Mr. Bilbray has voted pro-choice and has been "careful" on environmental votes, politically wise stands for the moderate Republican district he represents. Though Bilbray's race is close, Jacobson expects him to be reelected.

In southeastern Ohio, though, a different race is shaping up for GOP freshman Frank Cremeans. At a GOP rally last spring, a Republican businessman from Mr. Cremeans's district noted that Cremeans "didn't get it" about keeping local groups happy. Cremeans had skipped a meeting with senior citizens, the businessman noted, and they were angry. "You just don't do that," sighed the businessman. "Those are people who vote."

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