Deciding 'dice are hot,' GOP ups ante for fall races


LOS ANGELES -- The Republican Party has decided to put an additional $15 million into campaigns this fall to try to take advantage of what Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour calls "a tremendous opportunity" to make significant gains in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

The plan involves raising $12 million, for a net of $10 million in new money after fund-raising costs, which would represent about a 25 percent increase in the Republican National Committee budget for the midterm election year. In addition, Mr. Barbour announced that the party will borrow $5 million.

Speaking at the RNC's semiannual meeting here, the GOP chairman warned that the situation could change in the more than three months remaining before the November election. But he added:

"Nevertheless, we have had a strong wind at our backs for over a year and it shows no sign of subsiding. Indeed, it is getting stronger. . . . I have never seen a better political environment for Republicans, and that environment has produced the largest, strongest field of candidates in my memory."

Behind the decision to commit more money are private calculations by Republican professionals about the outlook for Nov. 8. They believe there is a strong chance they can gain the net seven seats to capture control of the Senate.

And, although they are unwilling to say so publicly, they believe it is possible that they can gain as many as 30 seats in the House, only 10 short of what they would need for control and enough to form a working majority of conservatives there.

There is, of course, nothing new in optimistic declarations by officials of either party entering a campaign. But this time the ebullience among Republicans is different in two respects. The public declarations of the party's outlook square both with their private assessments and, equally important, with the judgment of the best professionals in the Democratic Party.

But the most telling indicator of the Republican optimism is the decision by Mr. Barbour, a canny veteran of the political wars, to stick his neck out with the plan to spend the additional $15 million.

"I cannot look you in the eye and tell you we will succeed if we raise this extra money," Mr. Barbour told the committee, "but I can tell you it would be irresponsible for us as a committee not to take big risks to take advantage of this opportunity. When the dice are hot, it's time to bet the ranch."

Mr. Barbour said an estimate by Rep. Vic Fazio of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, that 175 House seats are "in play" squared precisely with Republican calculations. That total includes open seats and those with a vulnerable incumbent, a clear majority of them now held by Democrats.

But even if that number drops to 80 to 100 competitive races later in the campaign, as it is likely to do, Mr. Barbour said, the Republicans need the additional money to take advantage of the opportunity. The Republicans would need 40 seats for control of the House, which the party chairman called "unlikely" but "no longer out of the question."

Whatever the odds, the one thing clear at this meeting is that the Republicans recognize enough of an opportunity that they are focused on the midterm elections rather than potential presidential candidates for 1996.

Although the RNC program included appearances by several potential candidates -- Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Govs. Pete Wilson of California and William F. Weld of Massachusetts -- the corridor conversation dealt far more often with the potential for building a de facto conservative majority in Congress to confront President Clinton in the final two years of his term.

As one Republican supporter of former Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp put it, "Nobody here wants to hear about Jack or anybody else. They want to stick it to Clinton right now."

Most Democratic strategists are already resigned to the likelihood of the Republicans' gaining at least three or four seats in the Senate and making life far more difficult for Mr. Clinton there.

The Republicans have been encouraged by continuing developments, including the retirements of Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine and Sen. David L. Boren of Oklahoma, that have given them better-than-even chances for winning seats that ordinarily would not be open to them.

The arithmetic on the House is somewhat more complex. If there is a consensus in the political community now, it would be that the Republicans are well-positioned to gain 22 or 23 seats at a minimum. That would include 12 to 15 in House districts in the South and border states in which longtime Democrats are retiring or changes in demographics have made the electorate more conservative and Republican.

Then there are eight or 10 districts in which a strong Clinton vote in 1992 elected Democrats who were not expected to win and are considered vulnerable in a nonpresidential year in which Democratic turnout usually declines.

This group would include four or five districts in northern California that Mr. Clinton won with 12 percent or 13 percent pluralities.

There are also a half-dozen districts, at a minimum, where the anti-Democratic effects of reapportionment plans based on the 1990 census were masked by the Clinton vote in 1992. Among the Democrats who might be vulnerable because they lost some of their core constituencies in reapportionment would be Reps. Dale E. Kildee and Sander M. Levin of Michigan.

The key to winning some of these districts obviously can be money. Indeed, in some cases, Republicans who were badly underfunded in 1992 but ran close races are back for a second try.

The element of the political equation giving the Republicans the greatest encouragement is, however, the weakness of Mr. Clinton in current polls. The latest Gallup Poll, Mr. Barbour kept repeating here this weekend, showed Mr. Clinton with 49 percent of voters disapproving of his performance and only 42 percent approving.

"I didn't know how much help he was going to be," the Republican chairman said.

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