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A DEMOCRATIC leader in the House of...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A DEMOCRATIC leader in the House of Representatives has estimated in private that his party may lose 15 seats in the South and 15 in the West next year.

So long, good-bye, that's all she wrote. Democrats won't control the House again for decades. The South and West are the growth areas, and Democrats have been losing ground in both regions for years.

THE SOUTH. Remember when it was called the Solid South? When from Texas to Virginia there was practically one-party politics in congressional elections?

In the last four House elections, 42 new (non-incumbent) Republicans were elected in the South and only 35 new Democrats. Today, after Georgia's Nathan Deal switched parties last month, the lineup is 66 Republicans to 59 Democrats in the 11 Southern states.

A gain of 15 in 1996 would put that at 81-44. That's if there are no more switchers before 1996. A big if! Several Southern Democrats are openly discussing switching this year. I believe it is possible for Republicans to hit 85-90 in '96.

Why would some Southerners rather switch than fight? They believe most Southern voters can't stand Bill Clinton and the other leaders of their party -- especially the ones television seems to feature so often -- that liberal and abrasive pair, House Whip David Bonior and Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank.

And affirmative action has become even more identified with the Democratic Party than in years past. Southerners who don't think of themselves as racists (some of whom actually aren't) believe the Republican Party is the only place for them.

The Senate, where the current lineup is 13-9 Republican, is not immune to this. Alabama's Richard Shelby switched to the Republican Party last year. His colleague, Howell Heflin, is retiring rather than run again as a Democrat. Democratic senators in Arkansas and Louisiana ditto. And Sam Nunn of Georgia may. The Republican majority could be 17 to 5 in 1997.

Republicans will be favored to win every open seat in the South. In the past four Senate elections, Republicans have elected six new Southern senators; Democrats, one.

THE WEST. The 19 Pacific, Rocky Mountain and Plains states are Republican and getting more so. The current lineup in the House -- thanks to the fact that Western representatives elected since 1988 break down 45-19 Republican -- is 65 Republicans to 43 Democrats. Now if in 1996 Republicans gain 15 more, you're nearing a Solid West.

Last March Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado switched parties and became a Republican. That gives the party a 22-16 edge in the Senate. He's not as conservative as most Western Republicans, but he is to the right of most Democrats, including especially the Clinton administration and Eastern and Midwestern Democrats in Congress, on the land use. The property rights issue is to many Westerners what the civil rights issue is to many Southerners, which is to say, everything.

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