With all 435 House seats at stake this fall and voter anger with Washington running high, the 1994 election has the potential to produce major changes in Congress. President Clinton and the Democrats are hoping to keep their losses to a minimum, while Republicans dream of gaining control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
This is one in an occasional series on selected House races around the country.
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- "They are going to make every effort," says Bob Cook, the Monroe County Democratic chairman, "to paint her as joined to Clinton at the shoulders."
He is right. The Republicans do have footage of the president embracing Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, and, Monroe County Republican Chairman Stephen J. Minarik III says with a cackle, "I'm sure it will show up in a commercial."
Indeed, it is probably fair to say that hanging Mr. Clinton around the neck of the Democrat running for re-election here is a prime objective of the Republicans -- and a politically promising strategy in a year when the president is viewed as heavy baggage for Democrats.
In fact, Mr. Clinton is far better off in the 28th District of New York than in many parts of the country. Unpublished polls show his approval ratings here in the low 40 percent range -- even with, or even slightly higher than, national figures distorted by his extremely low ratings in Southern and border states.
Two years ago, Mr. Clinton's performance here almost exactly replicated his national vote. He won 44 percent, to 38 percent for George Bush and 18 percent for Ross Perot. But politicians in both parties recognize that there has been enough crystallization of the hostility toward the president to make him a factor in the contest for control of the House of Representatives on Nov. 8.
So although Ms. Slaughter is a four-term incumbent who won with 55 percent of the vote last time, she is vulnerable enough that the Republicans -- locally and nationally -- have targeted her seat as a realistic opportunity for an upset. And if Ms. Slaughter can be beaten here, it is reasonable to guess that there are eight or 10 other incumbents in similar circumstances who might be vulnerable enough to give the Republicans the chance for a significant gain of 25 to 30 seats in the House.
Such a performance wouldn't be enough to make Newt Gingrich the speaker -- the GOP needs 40 seats for control -- but it would confront Mr. Clinton with a far more conservative House than he has had to face in his first two years.
The contest here is not only about the president, of course. But he is enough of a factor that both sides have turned heavy artillery into the district to raise money. Vice President Al Gore has been here for Ms. Slaughter, and her Republican opponent, 37-year-old county legislator Renee Forgensi Davison, has benefited from an appearance by Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and has been promised the help of Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas.
There are also local elements in the political equation. The Republicans have been concentrating their resources on a different race each year. In 1991, they turned out a Democrat and elected Robert King county executive. In 1992, they captured the county legislature by electing, among others, Renee Davison. Last year, they unseated a longtime Democrat and installed a Republican as county clerk. This year, Ms. Slaughter is the blue-plate special.
The Democrats profess to be wary but not panicked. "I'm kind of a target here, but I haven't seen any great sign that they're giving me up," Ms. Slaughter says of her constituents.
"We're comfortable with where we are right now," says Mark Siewic, her campaign manager. "But this is not going to be easy."
"What gives us concern," says Democratic Chairman Cook, "is in recent years the Republicans have been very effective at knocking off incumbents."
In her four terms in Washington, after a career as a county and state legislator, Ms. Slaughter has gained recognition as a politician who can play the inside game effectively. She serves on the Rules and Budget committees, which offer her leverage that could be an asset for her district. But whatever success she has achieved also stamps her with the scarlet "I" for incumbent.
"We're not venal people trying to take advantage of anybody," she says of herself and her congressional colleagues, "but people have no faith in us at all."
Her challenger, a lawyer and mother of two young children with only two years in the county legislature, has the freshness of the citizen-politician. And her conventionally conservative positions on issues such as term limits, taxes, the death penalty and abortion rights offer a sharp contrast to the conventionally liberal Ms. Slaughter. Nor does it hurt the GOP challenger that she is Renee Forgensi Davison in a district with a substantial Italian-American population.
The campaign is still largely invisible. Both candidates eventually will mount heavy TV advertising campaigns in a market in which they can buy saturation coverage for a week for less than $45,000.
And so far, Ms. Davison has limited herself to zinging Ms. Slaughter for her support of Mr. Clinton's budget package last year, her sponsorship of his health care reform plan and her vote against the North American Free Trade Agreement. "Right now, I focus on Louise," she says. "I haven't really needed to get to Clinton yet."
The health care issue is particularly intriguing here because Rochester and Monroe County enjoy a system that is relatively inexpensive and comprehensive -- enough so that Ms. Slaughter has sought promises from those writing health care bills that Rochester will enjoy waivers in cases where the community would otherwise suffer in terms of benefits or costs.
"We already have government health care," Ms. Davison says. "It's called Medicaid."
The issue is so volatile that Rep. Bill Paxon, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, whose district abuts this one, came into Rochester this month and joined local Republicans in sponsoring a breakfast for business people to warn them of the perils of "socialized medicine" just around the corner.
As for Mr. Clinton, Ms. Slaughter is taking the line followed by other Democrats irrevocably tied to him. "There's no question that he's moved the agenda, and he's been gutsy about it," she says.
That, of course, is putting the best face on it. Whether it will be enough to save Louise Slaughter on Nov. 8 is another question entirely.