On-the-ground look at fight for the House

A congressional contest in New Jersey shows how local races tend to defy party control from Washington.

For popular New Jersey GOP Assemblyman Richard Bagger, the decision whether to run for Congress this year rested on three vital factors: a six-year-old daughter and two-year-old twins.

Ultimately, Mr. Bagger disappointed the Capitol Hill Republicans who were anxiously courting him for New Jersey's open House seat. "I just need to be there [home]," says Bagger, who often helps his older daughter with schoolwork while his wife puts the twins to bed.

In contrast, Democrat Maryanne Connelly, a feisty former mayor who won 44 percent of the vote for the northeastern New Jersey seat in 1998, was gearing up again to lead her party in battle.

But after spending months on a headset phone in her Fanwood, N.J., basement soliciting donations - she raised more than $220,000 - Ms. Connelly was shocked when local Democratic officials recently dumped her as their candidate of choice. Now she's waging a suffragist-style insurgency campaign against a fellow Democrat. "I know I can win," she says bitterly, "even though I am up against the machine."

Such parochial, unpredictable mini-dramas, now playing out in New Jersey and across the US, are at the heart of the race for control of the House of Representatives. They illustrate the maxim of former House Speaker Tip O'Neill that "all politics is local" - despite efforts by Washington party officials to steer the contests in which so much is at stake.

Indeed, which party controls the 435-member House could prove nearly as decisive for the future of American politics as who becomes president. Now tenuously held by Republicans with a 222-to-211 majority (there are two independents), the House will greatly influence whether a new president can break out of today's legislative gridlock to move his agenda.

The House race is as close as it is crucial. Neither party has an overwhelming advantage in terms of money, candidate recruitment, or public image, Congress watchers say. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) raised $33 million in 1999, compared with $52 million for the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), but the Democrats boast that they have millions more in cash on hand than the GOP.

Democrats enjoy voter preference on issues such as education, healthcare, and Social Security. "We don't need to be on a total par on the money because we've got the message, and it's the message that is resonating with people," says DCCC chairman Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) of Rhode Island.

Republicans counter that they win hands down in polls on character and values. "The values issue is the driving issue in a lot of these races, and that breaks for Republicans," says NRCC chairman Rep. Thomas Davis (R) of Virginia.

Moreover, the two parties are neck and neck in generic congressional polls that ask voters whether they would select Republicans or Democrats to represent them in the House.

The House race is especially tight because the opportunities to win are few, with less than 10 percent of House seats truly up for grabs. Because the country is at the end of a decade-long cycle following the 1990 census and redistricting, few mismatches remain between House members and the voter populations they represent. The vast majority of incumbents are expected to glide to reelection.

The House's 'Top 40'

Both parties predict that control of the House will be decided in roughly 40 competitive districts. These include seats held by vulnerable incumbents as well as vacated, or "open," seats. Republicans have far more open seats to defend - 23 so far, including the New Jersey seat - compared with only seven for Democrats, who were able to persuade more members to stay on. Republicans, however, say the disadvantage is far less than it seems because all but eight of the GOP open seats are in districts considered "safe," or solidly Republican, and unlikely to fall to Democrats.

Faced with their toughest race in decades, House Republican and Democratic campaign committees are heaping money and advice on the few dozen targeted races. The spending is likely to make these races expensive, with an estimated price tag of at least $1 million and as high as $3 million per candidate.

GOP officials say they may try to "nationalize" local House races, for example by running ads with a common message. Democrats, by contrast, reject "cookie cutter" ads as potentially damaging, saying they will tailor messages to individual races, Mr. Kennedy says.

Republicans also expect some GOP House contenders to ride the "coattails" of the party's presidential nominee to victory. About one-third of voters turn out only in presidential election years and tend to vote a straight party ticket, says Mr. Davis.

But the coattails effect can also backfire, he concedes. "A candidate can say something stupid and the whole ticket can go down." Democrats play down the role of coattails, arguing instead that higher turnout generally favors their candidates.

Despite all the Washington strategizing, national party officials are often frustrated in their efforts to sway the outcome of the district races.

"They don't have a lot of control," especially in states known for entrenched local party organizations, such as New Jersey, says Amy Walter, who follows House elections for the Cook Political Report in Washington.

The recruiting challenge

Recruiting the most talented candidates is often difficult, for example. The strain of congressional service on families, as well as the prospect of raising $1 million or more to finance a campaign, tops the list of concerns that discourage potential entrants like Bagger.

"For a lot of guys, it's family considerations. They just don't want to come to Washington three or four days a week," Davis says. "They want to live normal lives. That's the constant refrain."

Yet failure to attract the best and brightest often means a more competitive, chaotic race. After Bagger withdrew, the Republican primary for this longtime GOP suburban district outside Newark turned into a free-for-all of six candidates, with no obvious front-runner. One possible GOP leader is Tom Kean Jr., a son of the former New Jersey governor who left graduate school to move home and contend for the seat in his first election campaign.

"I'll compare my record to [Mr. Kean's] report card any day," quips Democratic front-runner Mike Lapolla, the blunt-spoken Union County manager.

Yet Mr. Lapolla, a veteran party activist now backed by powerful local Democratic organizers, must first take on Connelly, the jilted party favorite. Connelly has resisted pressure to back out of the primary race, comparing herself to suffragette Susan B. Anthony.

"I am not a loser. I am not a quitter," Connelly told a recent party convention. "I'm a winner."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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