Clinton in danger of losing liberal majority in House


ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Here in western North Carolina, Republican Rep. Charles Taylor should be rated at least a nominal favorite for re-election in a year in which the contest for the House of Representatives appears to be trending Republican.

Taylor was elected in 1990 and, although Bill Clinton narrowly carried the 11th District, re-elected two years ago with 55 percent of the vote-- something of an accomplishment in a district whose voters ousted incumbents four times during the 1980s.

But his Democratic opponent is a popular local television personality, Maggie Lauterer, whose prominence is enough to make her a formidable challenger and the contest too close to call at this early stage of the campaign.

The Taylor-Lauterer race is one of dozens across the country that demonstrate that the campaign for the House this year is really 435 individual races in which national trends -- and the voters' views of President Clinton and such issues as health care reform -- may be less important than demographics or the qualities of particular candidates.

Indeed, in North Carolina alone there are four districts in which the races are considered highly competitive this year, either because of the retirement of an incumbent, local issues or changes in the demography of the districts.

This does not suggest there is not an element of a national referendum in the contest for the House. The conventional wisdom among political professionals is that national issues can make the difference in the closest contests. That is what happened, for example, when the Democrats gained 43 seats in the post-Watergate mid-term election of 1974.

For Clinton, that factor is an important one. Most of the focus this year is on the Senate, where the Republicans need a net gain of seven seats for control -- a gain that seems highly unlikely but clearly not impossible. But the president's ability to function effectively in the final two years of his term also rests heavily on the makeup of the House.

At this point, no one in the political community believes the Republicans enjoy any realistic chance of winning the 40 seats they need for control. But the political handicappers now see a potential Democratic loss of at least 15 seats and perhaps as many as 23 to 25 -- an outcome that would eliminate the de facto liberal majority that has sustained Clinton up to this point.

If the Republicans were to gain as many as 30 seats -- again, unlikely but not impossible -- the president would be playing an extremely weak hand dealing with Congress while trying to position himself for his own re-election in 1996.

The trend toward Republicans is most pronounced in the Southern and Border states. In some cases longtime Democrats are retiring and leaving vacancies in districts that have been trending inexorably Republican. That is the case, for example, in fTC the 1st District of Florida, where Democrat Earl Hutto is stepping down.

In other cases in these states and elsewhere, there are freshmen incumbent Democrats who squeaked in two years ago but now find their identification with Clinton and the national Democratic Party a heavy burden. There are, for instance, at least five first-term Democrats from California and Washington who were elected in some measure because Clinton won those states by huge pluralities -- 13 percent in California, 10 in Washington -- in 1992.

There are also a handful of districts in which Democrats have become imperiled by the effects of redistricting after the 1990 census that robbed them of part of their core support, particularly black voters. The redistricting applied in 1992, of course, but the effects were masked by the success of Clinton and the higher Democratic turnout that is normal in presidential election years.

The importance of these local factors does not mean, however, that it isn't possible to draw some valid inferences about national politics from the House results. In some Southern states, for example, Clinton's approval rating among white voters has dropped below 35 percent, 10 points or more under his overall rating. The least that can be said there is that the president is clearly no asset for his party.

By November it is always possible the landscape will have been changed, perhaps by the health care issue. But right now the Democrats seem to need some upsets in districts like the North Carolina 11th or face hard times in the House.

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