No offense to Bob Dole, but Republican leaders predict their congressional candidates will fare better on the West Coast next year partly because there’s no presidential election.
Democrats say the West offers some of their best opportunities to cut into the GOP majority in Congress - especially in Washington state, where they expect some swing districts to swing back their way.
But John Linder, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, says low Republican turnout linked to Dole’s poor showing caused some GOP incumbents to look more vulnerable than they really are.
“We were hurt on the East Coast and the West Coast by turnout, less so in the middle of the country,” Linder said in a recent briefing to handicap the 1998 races.
“On the East Coast, the Dole campaign never ever got a message and Republicans stayed home,” he said.
“On the West Coast, the presidential election was over by about 5 o’clock in the afternoon and people just didn’t turn out,” Linder said.
“It will be a more normal turnout in a non-presidential year.”
Democrats have targeted three House Republicans from Washington state - Reps. Rick White, Jack Metcalf and Doc Hastings - for defeat.
Both parties have their eyes on highly competitive seats being left open by retiring Rep. Elizabeth Furse, D-Ore., and Rep. Linda Smith, R-Wash., who is running for the Senate.
Metcalf carried his district with just 48.5 percent of the vote, winning by a margin of less than 2,000 votes. Smith got just 50.18 percent of the vote, edging out her opponent by fewer than 1,000 votes.
That puts them in a category of 24 Republican incumbents nationally who won their seats with less than 51 percent of the vote. Just 10 Democratic lawmakers fall into that category.
Hastings had a stronger finish, with 52.9 percent of the vote, and White had 53.7 percent.
“In the West, Democrats’ best chances for pickups exist in Washington state,” Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said earlier this month.
Linder scoffed at that suggestion: “You mean like the last cycle? When they were predicting they would pick up five seats with three weeks to go?”
Democrats did indeed boast in ‘94 that they expected to take back all five of the Washington state seats lost to the GOP in 1992, when House Speaker Tom Foley and others went down and control of the Washington delegation swung from an 8-1 Democratic majority to a 7-2 Republican edge.
But freshman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., was the only challenger to prevail, narrowly unseating Republican Rep. Randy Tate with 50.1 percent of the vote to Tate’s 47.3 percent.
The GOP now believes it can win that seat back - and the one Democrats reclaimed in 1994 when Rep. Darlene Hooley, D-Ore., beat incumbent Republican Jim Bunn, 51.2 percent to 46 percent.
Both Furse and Hooley are targeted in Oregon, Linder said. He counts Furse’s seat among “a number of open seats where we are, at worst, tossups.”
Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., says the tightest congressional races in his home state should include Metcalf’s seat in the 2nd District, the 3rd District seat Linda Smith is leaving open and the 9th District seat Adam Smith will try to defend.
Democrat Brian Baird, defeated by Linda Smith last time, already has launched a formal campaign for the 3rd District seat. When he joined Democratic leaders at Frost’s briefing earlier this month, Frost declared him one of the party’s five top challengers nationally.
Gorton said the strength of the economy appeared to help incumbents on both sides of the aisle in midcycle elections held earlier this month in New York, New Mexico and California.
“The economy is likely to favor incumbents. We have voters today who are somewhat more comfortable with the status quo than they were two years ago or four years ago,” he said.
xxxx COMPETITIVE RACES In the last election, 24 Republican incumbents won their seats with less than 51 percent of the vote. Ten Democratic lawmakers fall into the same category.
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