Democrats' decision: Focus on retaking House or Senate?

As Democrats in House consider running for Senate, party worries thatshift could hurt lower chamber.

When Rep. Michael Forbes of New York switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party this month, he sent a shock wave through both parties.

It was the first time in 26 years that a GOP member of Congress had gone Democratic, giving Democrats much to crow over as they seek to highlight differences with their rivals.

But just as important, it also cut the Republicans' already thin House majority by one seat, closing the margin to just five in the 435-seat chamber. That, coincidentally, is also the margin that the Democrats must close to retake the Senate as well.

Therein lies one of the great low-level, internecine battles going on inside Washington: Which Democratic campaign operation, the House's or the Senate's, will get to keep the strongest candidates?

The House Democrats want to keep their incumbent members right where they are, so as not to risk losing the seat to a Republican. But some of those same incumbents would make attractive Senate candidates - and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee is trying to lure them into their camp.

"If you listen to [the committees], they have hyped some of the same races," says Stu Rothenberg, an independent political analyst. "So there's some competition."

Ironically, one of the Senate Democrats' most sought-after candidates isn't even a Democrat. He's Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a left-leaning independent who votes with the Democrats. But the Democrats regard him as their best hope of unseating the state's moderate Republican senator, James Jeffords. If Representative Sanders left the House, his seat could well go Republican.

Senate's benefits

For Sanders, and the other House members facing this decision, the choice comes down to personal prestige versus helping the party where it has its greatest chance of taking over. Winning a seat in the Senate holds great appeal for many House members who would relish the more rarefied air of the 100-seat chamber and the chance to flex one's ego.

One of the appealing arguments to Sanders is that the Senate allows for individuality - and, as anyone who has met the Brooklyn-born, self-described socialist can attest, he certainly is an individual.

For the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the flip-side argument is that the party has a better chance at taking over the House than the Senate, and that life in the majority is much more appealing than life in the minority.

If the Democrats do retake control, after their humiliating landslide defeat in 1994, all committee chairmanships will go to Democrats - a point not lost on many party faithful who have already announced they will pass up a shot at the Senate.

Democrats working hard in the battle for the House maintain there's no conflict with their Senate brethren. But it's clear the House activists are keeping a close tally of who they've kept and who they've lost.

"I think we're up to 11 or 12 cases now where incumbent House members have decided to forgo a bid for the Senate," says a committee staffer, who rattles off a half-dozen names.

Another key undecided House member is Rep. David Minge (D) of Minnesota, who sees a tempting target in Minnesota Sen. Rod Grams (R), with weak poll numbers. As with Sanders, if Representative Minge leaves his seat, it could go Republican.

Other House members who may try for the Senate are Reps. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee and Jim McDermott of Washington, but they both come from safe Democratic seats, and so the House committee isn't concerned.

Overall, analysts say both parties have recruited some good candidates. "I'd say they're doing equally," says Amy Walter, who watches House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.

What's remarkable about the maneuvering is how few competitive races are shaping up, making those that are competitive all the more important. Political analysts are predicting as few as 45 competitive House seats - some 10 percent of all House races - which would make the 2000 elections even less competitive than the 1998 races.

No strong challengers

Why the lack of competition? There's no strong anti-incumbency mood lurking in the land. And many of those members currently serving have shown they could survive a backlash against their party - as Democrats felt in 1994 and Republicans felt in 1996 and 1998. These members are viewed as safely ensconced, and so they don't attract strong challengers.

In the Senate, the Democrats have several opportunities for picking up seats - but overcoming the five-seat margin will be tough, since the Democrats could also lose a couple of seats.

Mr. Rothenberg, the political analyst, is looking at three key Senate races: Delaware, Vermont, and Montana. If at least two of the three become highly competitive, "I'd start to take a look at control of the Senate," he says. "At the moment, you have to think the Democrats are going to make a gain, but five seats are a lot."

In Delaware, for example, the seat up for reelection is currently held by Sen. William Roth, the venerable Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. If Gov. Tom Carper (D) runs against him, he could give Senator Roth the most difficult race of his career.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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