GOP Battles Historical Odds for Midterm Control of Senate

William Schnieder is a contributing editor to Opinion.

Congress has accomplished nothing so far this year, right? Wrong. According to a report released last week by Common Cause, those Senators running for reelection in 1986 have raised $20 million in campaign funds so far this year. That is a record.

The average incumbent seeking reelection next year raised $645,000 during the first half of 1985. That is far higher than the average of $364,000 raised by Senate incumbents seeking reelection in 1984. Moreover, Republicans have, on the average, raised half again as much money as Democrats. Five Republicans and one Democrat (Sen. Alan Cranston, D--Calif.) have raised more than $1 million apiece.

Last week President Reagan's advisers presented him with a plan for a political offensive this fall. The plan involved not only budget and tax issues, but also a campaign strategy to help the Republicans keep control of the Senate in 1986.

Clearly the President, and a great many other Republicans, are worried. 1986 will be a big test for the GOP. Of the 34 Senate seats up in 1986, 22 are now held by Republicans. Sixteen of those Republicans are freshmen, the "class of 1980" swept into office in the Reagan landslide. These "giant killers" defeated such well-known liberal Democrats as George McGovern, Frank Church, Birch Bayh, Gaylord Nelson and John Culver. Now they must face the electorate again--and without Ronald Reagan at the top of the ticket.

The Democrats, by comparison, have only 12 seats to defend, including just two freshmen. They need a net gain of four seats to win back control of the Senate. The historical odds indicate they ought to be able to do it.

Whenever a party wins a sweeping legislative victory, as the Republicans did in 1980, it is bound to have many vulnerable seats at the next election. The Senate Republicans elected in 1980 won with an average of 55% of the vote; six of them received 50% or less. On the other hand, the Democrats were reduced to their safest seats in 1980; they won their seats with an average of 60% of the vote. In fact, one of the reasons why the Republicans did so well in 1980 is that the Democrats were defending many vulnerable Senate seats gained in the landslide Watergate election of 1974.

There is another historical factor working in the Democrats' favor next year. That is the phenomenon of the "six-year itch." After six years in control of the White House, in the middle of a second term, the President's party usually suffers a serious setback. In the last six such elections (1918, 1926, 1938, 1958, 1966 and 1974), the President's party has suffered an average loss of seven Senate seats. The losses have ranged from a low of four seats in 1966 to a high of 13 seats in 1958. In other words, even if the Republican Senate losses are kept to a historic minimum (four seats), the GOP will still lose control of the Senate.

The Republicans are confident they can buck these historical odds. They have three things going for them: Reagan's popularity, their party's popularity and their own popularity.

Reagan's job-approval ratings remain strong. They had been slipping earlier this year, but since May, the decline has been reversed. The President appeared to pick up support as a result of his trip to Europe in May and his firmness under pressure during the Bitburg controversy. The successful resolution of the hostage crisis and sympathy for his medical problems have further bolstered the President's popularity. Moreover, Republican partisanship continues to hold steady, with Republicans now virtually equal in strength to the long-dominant Democrats.

The National Journal recently canvassed the latest available approval ratings for all incumbent Senators who will be running for reelection next year. The ratings for incumbent Republicans are high, averaging 63% positive. Incumbent Democrats average somewhat lower (56% positive).

In part, GOP senators are benefiting from the popularity of their President and their party. But something else seems to be involved. The "Class of '80" Republican Senators have been conspicuous in their dedication to constituency service. For the most part, they have failed to assume a high legislative or ideological profile. That is a surprise to many observers who expected the 1980 Republicans to be the shock troops of the Reagan Revolution. While they have generally been loyal to Reagan, their principal commitment has been to their respective states. When support for Reagan has come into conflict with their states' interests, the latter have almost invariably come first.

Thus, freshman Republican Alfonse M. D'Amato has joined other New Yorkers in criticizing the provision in Reagan's tax plan that would end the deductibility of state and local taxes. And during the farm credit crisis, freshman Republican Charles E. Grassley of Iowa went so far as to attack Pentagon waste in order to rationalize emergency federal help for farmers. Both Senators enjoy exceptionally high approval ratings.

A member of Congress must choose between striking a high legislative profile--becoming a nationally known expert in some issue area or a spokesman for some point of view--and keeping a low profile and tending to his or her constituents' interests. For example, New York Democrat Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is a high-profile politician; voters nationwide look to him for brilliant intellectual leadership on foreign affairs and social policy. His colleague, D'Amato, has kept a low legislative profile; New Yorkers tend to go to him when they want the government to do something for them.

California Sen. Pete Wilson is another low-profile Republican. He is almost invisible in Washington, but he has cultivated an image of effectiveness in California. Cranston used to have a similar low-profile image--hard-working, effective and relatively colorless. All that changed when he ran for President last year. He turned out to be the most liberal candidate after Jesse Jackson. Cranston is now seen as a highly ideological figure. And his approval ratings in California have suffered.

Thus, one of the lessons the GOP "Class of '80" seems to have absorbed is, "Keep a low profile and protect your approval ratings." After all, Sens. McGovern, Church, Bayh, Nelson and Culver were all high-profile politicians who "lost touch" with their constituents. And look what happened to them. On the other hand, concentrating on constituency service leaves new senators vulnerable to criticism from colleagues and from the press, as little more than "glorified House members."

Actually, personal approval ratings may not mean all that much in the 1986 Senate elections. House elections tend to turn on voters' feelings about the incumbent, and those feelings are generally favorable. In Senate contests, however, issues and ideology play a much greater role.

All Senate races are statewide and are covered by television. Senate contests are essentially media contests; challengers and incumbents end up being about equally well known and face each other on fairly equal footing. Many supposedly obscure candidates like Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), Bob Kasten (R-Wis.), Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.) learned that lesson in 1980. The issues were on their side, and they won.

House incumbents, by comparison, usually compete with unknown and invisible challengers who cannot push their issue message across. The result is that over 90% of House members who run for reelection regularly win, usually on a vote of personal confidence. Senate elections, like presidential elections, are more responsive to issues and to the political mood of the electorate. Thus, it is not clear that a low legislative profile will protect senators as well as it does House members.

The Republicans may confound history and hold on to their Senate majority in 1986. If they do, it will probably be because their policies are popular, not because they have managed to become well-liked as individuals. In 1984, the voters said loud and clear that Reagan's election in 1980 was no fluke. In 1986, they will answer a similar question: Did we really mean it when we turned the Senate over to the GOP in 1980?

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