Local agendas may write future of House in 2000

Small number of contested seats, focus on local issues make race toughto predict.

Back home in Lawrence, Kan., recently, House Democrat Dennis Moore faced a chiding after giving a speech at the local Rotary Club. "How dare you come in here and talk like a Republican?" ribbed former state Sen. Wint Winter, Representative Moore recalls.

But Moore, a vulnerable freshman who faces a tough 2000 reelection battle, says he's just being pragmatic. Forced to appeal to as many Republicans as Democrats, he says he'll do "what it takes" to hold onto his largely suburban district, where Republicans held sway for 40 years until he took office in 1998.

As lawmakers return to Capitol Hill this week after touring their districts, Moore illustrates the extent to which local politics - not national agendas - are so far dominating races for the relatively few competitive House seats. These contests will decide whether Republicans retain control over Congress in 2000.

The outcome of the House race is almost as critical to US politics as who wins the White House in 2000, experts say. The new president's ability to push through an agenda will depend greatly on which party holds the majority in the 435-member body.

Yet the localized nature of the race for control of the House, the small number of vulnerable seats, and a highly competitive atmosphere all make the outcome virtually impossible to predict.

"There is no overarching national issue that is likely to undercut one side or push the other across," says Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report here. From impeachment to taxes, few analysts expect high-profile national issues to play a major role, despite efforts by the parties to promote them.

The House race especially is likely to be photo-finish close. In contrast to the Senate, where Republicans enjoy a relatively comfortable 55 to 45 lead, the GOP has only a slim, five-seat advantage in the House. "I think it will be hand-to-hand combat from coast to coast," says Mr. Cook.

One underlying reason for the close 2000 House race is the tapering off of a major voter realignment, which saw regions like the South, as well as suburbs around the country, become more Republican. Today, the parties have solidified their new positions, and fewer seats are likely to shift. Only an estimated 40 to 50 seats are being seriously contested, with one or two dozen "toss-ups," experts say.

"It's not like a huge tsunami, so it's very competitive and very close," says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University here.

Overall, the playing field for the congressional race appears flat. Recent polls show likely voters fairly evenly split on whether they want Democrats or Republicans to control Congress. And although Republicans enjoy a higher level of fund-raising, Democrats are narrowing the gap.

As the competition intensifies, both parties are funneling unprecedented sums of money into a few tight races. Moore, for example, raised $355,000 during the first half of this year, an impressive sum for a freshman with an uncertain grip on his seat.

Still, the flow of money from party officials, lobbyists, and other big donors does not necessarily translate into candidates toeing the party line on issues, interviews with lawmakers suggest.

"I think a lot of people vote for individuals instead of just a party line," says Moore, considered one of the three most vulnerable House Democrats. Moore, who won in 1997 with only 52 percent of the vote, must cobble together a coalition of Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans. "I am focusing on what it is going to take for me to win,... [not on] the whole House," he says.

The case is similar in House races across the country, where local concerns are overshadowing national issues embraced by the parties such as tax cuts and saving social security, experts say.

"Most voters are pretty happy right now, and yet they are concerned about health, the environment, education, transportation, and safety that affect their quality of life," says Mr. Thurber. Local economic problems such as the farm crisis are also at the forefront in some states, Cook says.

Rep. Connie Morella (R) of Maryland agrees. "I think [the House race] will come down to a whole lot of local stuff," she says. In her Washington suburban district, for example, she says many voters are worried about health care and prescription costs.

In southwestern Michigan, GOP Rep. Fred Upton says a major topic of discussion among parents is the "date rape" drug, which would be banned under legislation he introduced.

Asked what her prospective constituents care most about, Marjorie Margolies Mezvinsky, a former Pennsylvania congresswoman now vying for the Democratic Senate nomination, replied: "It's food prices, it's education, it's health care, it's having to take care of senior parents."

Efforts by the parties to promote national issues are having little impact so far, lawmakers and experts say.

Education is viewed primarily as a local issue, and few voters are paying attention to GOP steps to grant states and school districts more control over federal education funds, Thurber says.

On the nearly $800 billion Republican tax-cut bill, Representatives Moore, Upton, and Morella all say there is little enthusiasm among their constituents, for whom debt reduction was a higher priority. "I speak a lot to service clubs and factory meetings, and people over and over say, 'You guys have to work to reduce that debt,' " Upton says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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