With continued Republican control of Congress in serious jeopardy, Republican candidates and their allies are pouring tens of millions of dollars into a closing ad blitz, outspending Democrats by margins of up to 3-to-1.
Much of the money is going into TV ads attacking Democratic House and Senate candidates and their backers in organized labor, who have been pounding Republicans for more than a year in a coordinated assault aimed at ending GOP control after a single two-year term.
"We can, in four weeks, obliterate the mischaracterizations that they spent millions to make over a 13- or 14-month period," contends Haley Barbour, the Republican national chairman.
His strategy is about to be given the acid test in this California district and dozens of others where Republicans are locked in tight races.
If the election were held earlier this month, Democrats would have picked up the 18 seats they need to take back control of the House, congressional analyst Charles Cook concluded recently. Republican prospects for preserving their Senate majority appear brighter, according to Cook, who nonetheless calls 1996 "the least predictable Senate election year that we have ever seen."
But Republican retaliation may be starting to pay off, according to politicians in both parties. Alan Secrest, a Democratic campaign consultant, puts the chances of a Democratic House takeover at 50-50. "Had [the Republican ad blitz] not happened," he says, "the odds might be greater than 50."
Nowhere is the fight over Congress more intense than in this sprawling district, which includes 150 miles of central California coastline and the Santa Ynez range, where former President Ronald Reagan's 688-acre mountaintop ranch is up for sale.
Two years ago, Rep. Andrea Seastrand was virtually unknown in much of the district. But she rode a national Republican tide to victory, with help from local religious conservatives and anti-abortion activists.
Her winning margin was 1,563 votes, out of more than 200,000 cast, one of the closest races in the country. The Democrat she defeated, Walter H. Capps, a 62-year-old college professor, is back for a rematch.
In Washington, Seastrand has been relatively obscure -- even, it seems, among some of her freshman classmates.
During a recent fund-raising stop on her behalf at the Earl Warren Show Grounds in Santa Barbara, first-term Rep. J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, a rising Republican star, held his colleague in a long embrace and called her a good friend.
Warning supporters to steel themselves for a brutal finish, Watts predicted that "Andrea's going to be kicked in the teeth and lied about so much her husband's going to go to bed with one eye open, looking at her. He's going to think, 'Who in the world have I married?' "
Seastrand, who was elected in 1990 to fill the state legislative seat of her late husband and has not remarried, smiled bravely.
But if her colleagues may not know her so well, the district is more familiar with her now.
One reason is Seastrand's single-minded pursuit of re-election. She has come home every weekend, she claims, a 10-hour trip in each direction from Washington. That, and her efforts to respond to the everyday needs of her constituents, has earned her a reputation as hard-working and responsive.
At the same time, more than a year's worth of negative ads from the AFL-CIO, Sierra Club and other interest groups have defined Seastrand in a much different way: as a tool of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's extremist style, someone out to whack the health benefits of seniors and the loans of college students, an "eco-thug" bent on despoiling California's environment, an anti-abortion zealot who would outlaw the procedure, with no exceptions.
"The TV ads are scare tactics, but they've had an effect. No doubt about it," says Boyd Larson, a local Republican activist. A Seastrand adviser confirms that the incumbent has suffered defections among women, in particular.
Interviews on the old West-style main street of tiny Santa Ynez confirm the damage. Out of a dozen voters questioned, three said they supported Seastrand in 1994 but are abandoning her this time.
The Republican Congress made "a few too many cuts in the programs that are necessary for schools and senior citizens," explains Terri Mei of Lompoc, who runs a window-covering shop.
Jake Copass, a 76-year-old ranch hand, is supporting her Democratic rival, "not that I like him, particularly, but I just don't like what she's been doing." In particular, Copass objects to what he sees as the Republicans' heavy-handed approach on "women's rights. A woman ought to have the right to do what she wants to do" with her own body.
Lynn Holmgren, 36, a student at Santa Barbara Community College, is offended by cuts the Republicans wanted to make in student loans. And she doesn't like Gingrich.
"He's like the puppet-master for her -- she voted with him 95 percent of the time," says Holmgren, repeating a line out of the anti-Seastrand attack ads.
Seastrand has stood by Gingrich, even as she has stuck by her conservative guns in the face of polls showing that voters have turned against the House Republican agenda. She was a featured speaker when Gingrich led a Capitol ceremony commemorating the second anniversary of the signing of the "Contract with America."
While other Republicans are treating the House speaker as though he were radioactive as the election nears, Seastrand has been proud to welcome him twice to the district (Gingrich raised some $100,000 for her).
She balks, however, at being labelled his staunch defender. "He's my friend" is all she says.
Yet she isn't going out of her way to advertise that fact. Her campaign commercials don't even identify her as a member of Congress, much less as a Republican.
Instead, Seastrand's ads attack Capps, who has never served in office, for "broken promises," accusing him of flip-flops to appear more conservative on issues such as tax cuts, the death penalty and welfare for illegal aliens.
"She's running a challenger campaign, not an incumbent's campaign," complains Cathy Duvall, political director of the Capps campaign.
Adding punch to Seastrand's retaliation on TV are commercials paid for by her allies, including "the Coalition," a group of business interests led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Association of Manufacturers.
The pro-Seastrand spots are saturating the airwaves in the district, outnumbering ads for Capps by roughly 2-to-1.
These independent expenditures, which, by law, are not supposed to be coordinated with a candidate's campaign, praise the freshman Republican for voting to cut taxes and reform welfare. "Tell the big labor bosses, California is not for sale," says one, calling the Democratic challenger a "big liberal" tool of "big labor," which is trying to buy control of Congress with its "big lies."
For his part, Democrat Capps is trying to moderate his liberal image.
His TV ads call him a fiscal conservative and offer a Clintonesque message of welfare reform and middle-class tax breaks for student loans and job training. On the stump, however, he sounds more like a Republican's image of an old-fashioned liberal spender.
Addressing a rally of 300 at the beachfront campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he teaches religious studies, the Democrat pledged to seek more money for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, two programs whose budgets have been cut by the Republican-led Congress.
At times, Capps sounded more like an earnest if absent-minded professor than the successful politician he aspires to become, as he urged his young audience to prod their friends to vote on "November Seventh."
"Fifth," corrected one Capps supporter under her breath.
A mid-September poll showed the House contest here a dead heat. But Capps, whose campaign claims to have registered some 10,000 new voters on local campuses, may have a slight edge.
Because Republican turnout is traditionally high in the district, Bob Dole's decision to target California in the presidential race could increase interest in the election and have the unintended effect of bringing out more Democratic voters, according to Republican and Democratic politicians. At the same time, though, an independent candidate in the race is drawing about 5 percent in the polls, most of which is expected to come at Capps' expense.
If Democrats are to pick up the seats they need to regain a majority, this race seems to be one they need to win. By the same token, Republicans could retain control of the House if an incumbent as vulnerable as Seastrand manages to hold on in the face of a potential Clinton landslide.
California's 22nd Congressional District ... and the battle for the 105th Congress
Most independent analysts give Republicans the edge to retain their majority in the Senate. But the battle for control of the House may be too close to call. Democratic gains appear likely, though leading Republicans, continue to predict Republicans will add to their majority in the House. Sen. Christopher Dodd, the Democratic general chairman, puts the odds of his party retaking the House at 50-50 and says there's still a chance the Senate could go Democratic, too.
Seats needed for majority: 218
Seats needed for majority: 51*
* If the same party controls both the White House and the Senate only 50 seats are needed for a majority, as the Vice President may cast a tie-breaking vote.
Pub Date: 10/23/96