the Republican Party would seem to be moving toward the November elections with the wind steadily at its back. But one disagreeable crosscurrent is blowing. Despite the bright presidential prospects, some of the GOP's best friends doubt that 1984 will be a banner year for Republicans in House and Senate races.
Business-related political action committees (PACs), which have given millions of campaign dollars to Republican challengers since 1978, are showing reluctance to contribute to newcomers this year. Instead, they are giving more heavily to the tried-and-proven incumbents.
The result has been slim pickings for some GOP congressional hopefuls.''
This is the toughest year we've seen in a long time for challengers as far as PAC money is concerned,'' says Janet Mullins, campaign director for Republican Mitch McConnell, who is running against Kentucky Sen. Walter D. Huddleston.
By some standards, Mr. McConnell, a county executive, has mounted a credible campaign that has brought in more than $1 million, largely from individuals. But he has collected less than $90,000 from PACs, while Senator Huddleston, the Democratic incumbent, has reported $534,000 in PAC contributions.''
At this point, the basic reaction we get from PACs is they were losers in support of challengers (during the 1982 elections) and maybe that wasn't the wisest thing to do,'' McConnell's campaign chief says.
According to a study made by Public Citizen's Congress Watch, a Ralph Nader organization, PACs have given 83 percent of their campaign donations for the current election cycle to congressional incumbents.
Although it is customary for PACs to favor incumbents, the balance appears to be tipping even further this year. This is especially bad news for Republican efforts in the House, where the GOP has about 100 fewer incumbents than the Democrats. Thus, Rep. James R. Jones (D) of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Budget Committee, is watching his coffers swell with nearly $344,000 in PAC money. Not just traditional friends of Democrats such as labor unions, but business, agriculture, and oil and gas groups are giving to the budget chairman's campaign.
Meanwhile, Republican former US attorney Frank Keating, his chief challenger, has reported receiving funds from only four PACs, for a total of $4,200.
Other races show a similar trend. One of the favorite candidates of the US Chamber of Commerce is former representative Larry DeNardis, a Republican who lost his Connecticut seat in the Democratic sweep of 1982. Mr. DeNardis has received a respectable $22,830 in PAC funds since the start of the year, according to his latest campaign report.
But his opponent, Rep. Bruce Morrison, a member of the House Banking, Finance , and Urban Affairs Committee, has collected $99,720 from PACs so far this year. Among his supporters have been a number of banking groups.''
I think a lot them were burned in 1982,'' says Mick Staton, manager of the political action program of the Chamber of Commerce, when asked about the reticence of business PACs to back challengers. ''That's of concern to us. We would like for the business community to be a little more aggressive.''
Business-Industry PAC, which specializes in backing challengers, reports falling slightly behind this year in handing out funds. ''We didn't find, early in the campaign year, the possibilities we saw in '78, '80, and '82,'' BI-PAC political education director Bernadette A. Budde says. ''I think a lot of people are still confused,'' she says. ''The atmosphere is mixed.''
Mr. Staton says some PACs may have been influenced by pressure from Democrats trying to lure money away from Republican challengers. But he and director Budde agree that the main reason for withholding money is the lack of competitive races.
Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., Republican National Commitee chairman, blames the state legislatures for drawing new congressional distrcts after the 1980 census which are tilted toward Democrats.
But the Chamber of Commmerce's Staton holds that new districts, which are often safer for incumbents of both parties, are not the only cause. ''There's not as many good quality candidates as there were'' a few years ago, he says.
Congress also has stronger members who are less susceptible to defeat, according to BI-PAC's Budde.
But there are more than two months until the elections, and most PACs wait for the last minute to award funds to challengers. According to Budde, some event could spur increased giving.
Meanwhile, GOP challengers are coming to Dallas to make their case to PAC managers. Among the hopefuls will be Republican Jack Lousma. The former astronaut, running for the US Senate in Michigan, has been seen as one of the party's star candidates. So far, however, he has received only $46,925 in PAC funds, while incumbent Sen. Carl Levin has received $377,904.
Mr. Lousma will try to reverse that trend during the convention. He has scheduled 11 events to meet with PAC managers and other contributors on hand to look over the candidates for '84.