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Democrats Face Difficult Calculus for House in '98

Resigning veterans make retaking of Hill look unlikely.

For House Democrats trying to read the political signs of the times, these are somewhat unnerving days.

Last week's revelation that two party veterans will retire from Congress lengthens the list of Democrats opting for private life - and fuels speculation that the party's top tier may be pessimistic about its chances of taking back the House in 1998.

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If nothing else, the departure of Reps. Vic Fazio and Ronald Dellums, both of California, could complicate House Democrats' internal politics. And it points out the difficulty any party has in retaining good lawmakers when the other side holds majority power.

"You would figure ... that part of their calculations was that the outlook [for taking the House] wasn't particularly good," says Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report, a Washington newsletter. "It's a blow when people like that leave."

But officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats' campaign arm, take a more positive view. "Retirements are going to happen," says spokeswoman Stephanie Cohen. "We are just going to work hard to make sure we get [top candidates]."

This does not mean that the two men may not have personal reasons for leaving. Mr. Dellums has served since 1970 and was expected to retire in the relatively near future. Mr. Fazio said he wants to spend more time with his family - and he's been mentioned as a possible White House chief of staff, if that job comes open.

Still, there's no denying that their departures make a steep road for House Democrats even steeper. They need to pick up at least 11 seats to wrest control from Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and his Republicans - and a review of "open" seats, which have no incumbent and generally offer the greatest hope for turnover, shows Democrats so far have made little or no gain.

Worse for Democrats, Fazio's seat in Sacramento, Calif., and that of retiring Rep. Paul McHale (D) of Pennsylvania are thought to be leaning Republican. Dellums's resignation takes effect in February, but his seat in the Oakland-Berkeley region of the Bay Area will in all likelihood remain in Democratic hands.

Currently, 11 Democrats and nine Republicans have announced they will retire or seek other office at the end of their terms. (At least one more retirement - that of Texas Rep. Henry Gonzalez (D) - is on the way.) Six Republicans and two Democrats will try to move up to the Senate; one Republican and one Democrat will run for governor.

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Democrats appear to have a competitive chance to take GOP seats currently held by Reps. Linda Smith of Washington, Scott Klug and Mark Neumann of Wisconsin, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, John Ensign of Nevada, and perhaps Michael Crapo of Idaho.

But that is balanced by Republicans' potential to win seats now held by Reps. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, Scotty Baesler of Kentucky, Elizabeth Furse of Oregon, and David Skaggs of Colorado, along with the Fazio and McHale seats.

In addition, three seats last held by Democrats are vacant and will be filled in special elections next year. Two of those - seats held by Reps. Thomas Foglietta of Pennsylvania and Floyd Flake of New York - will probably remain in the Democrats' column. But the seat of the late Rep. Walter Capps of California could well slip to the GOP, which held it for several years before Mr. Capps's 1996 victory.

The current tally of 23 open seats lags behind the 35 average retirements or resignations in every election cycle. Indeed, resignations this time around may remain below average, says Amy Walter, who follows the House for the Cook Political Report in Washington. "I don't see that many [more] potential retirements on the horizon," she says.

These open seats are carefully watched by party leaders: How many there are and where they are located figure prominently in the election calculus. Because seats with incumbents are harder to turn over, open seats represent a party's best shot at seizing districts from the other side.

That leaves Democrats with the more-difficult task of trying to knock off GOP incumbents. Several analysts say they've got their work cut out for them.

"Two years ago, the Republicans were saddled with an awful image of being extremists on education, the environment, and Medicare," Mr. Rothenberg says. Add to that a demonized Speaker Gingrich and a presidential candidate who never really caught fire. Even so, the Democrats picked up only eight seats.

Republicans today have a softer image after reaching deals with President Clinton to reform welfare, balance the budget, and cut taxes. Moreover, the party not in the White House usually does well in congressional elections during the sixth year of a presidency. "If the Democrats couldn't do it last election, it's hard to see how the current environment is any easier," Rothenberg says.

Ms. Walter is not much more optimistic about the Democrats' prospects. "This is difficult, but there is going to be some hand-to-hand combat in these districts," she says. The Cook organization puts Democratic Party chances of taking the House at 15 to 20 percent.

But Democrats are undaunted, at least in public. Given the vulnerable Republican and open seats, Ms. Cohen says, "We'll be able to pick up the 11 seats we need."

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