Gop Frosh Are Saying: `See Ya Around, Newt'

Many are running scared and putting distance between themselves and the Speaker

Freshmen Republican Representatives William J. Martini and David Funderburk are glad to tell you about their differences with House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Martini, fighting for survival in a largely blue-collar northern New Jersey district, boasts that he has voted against the Speaker more often than any other GOP rookie. What's more, he has been endorsed by two environmental groups and 11 union locals. Martini is not a Newt robot but a freethinking moderate, he's quick to remind voters. "I'm a congressman who has broken ranks with the leadership," he says. "I'm a Republican freshman who got it."

Down on Tobacco Road in eastern North Carolina, Funderburk is quick to point out that he's no Newt robot either. But while Martini seeks the political center, Funderburk is proud of his unyielding conservatism. In fact, the Jesse Helms protege worries that the Speaker occasionally has been too quick to appease liberals on issues such as the minimum-wage hike and the Mexican peso rescue. "I probably disagree with him more than many members of Congress," says Funderburk, the district's first GOP representative since Reconstruction.

The battle for control of the House could well be decided in swing districts like these. A BUSINESS WEEK analysis of the 74 districts represented by GOP freshmen indicates that 15 of them are in deep trouble while another 25 are in moderate danger of losing their seats. Democrats, needing a gain of 20 seats to recapture the House, must defeat about 30 of the endangered freshmen to overcome expected setbacks in the South.

The GOP freshmen didn't bargain on needing a survival guide two years ago, when they swept into office in a wave of public dissatisfaction with President Clinton and a long-ruling Democratic Congress. But now their revolution is in tatters, and their agenda and the Speaker who crafted it are viewed by many voters as too radical. What's more, they're getting little help from Presidential nominee Bob Dole, who is running far behind Clinton in most of their districts. No wonder the frosh are running scared.

Most are dashing madly to the political middle. Rather than preaching revolution, they now cast themselves as "common-sense reformers." In fact, many have become born-again moderates, pushing bills that are pro-environment and pro-education. Some even boast of their cooperation with Clinton. For example, Representative Greg Ganske (R-Iowa), struggling against Democratic weathercaster Connie McBurney in a traditionally Democratic district, issued a gushing press release when the President endorsed his proposal to expand patients' access to medical information.

Ideological repositioning worked for Clinton after his '94 debacle, and it might work for some of the freshmen, too. But Democrats are reminding voters of those heady early days of the GOP Contract With America. In New Jersey, Martini's Democratic opponent, Paterson Mayor William J. Pascrell Jr., scoffs that the incumbent "is portraying himself as an independent even though he voted for the contract 91% of the time. He's tangled in those sheets, and I'm not going to let him get out of the bed." Martini responds that his loyalty has always belonged to the home folks: "They know I'm someone who acted for them."

Unlike 1994, Republicans are emphasizing local issues as their ticket to reelection. For some, that means shipping pork back home. Endangered freshman Frank Riggs, a critic of Big Government, received $4.6 million in water projects for his Northern California district. Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonpartisan watchdog group, labeled them "unrequested and unnecessary."

Meanwhile, Funderburk warns of dire consequences for his district's tobacco farmers if Democrats regain control of Congress. He links his opponent, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bob Etheridge, to Clinton and Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), an antismoking crusader who would chair the tobacco oversight panel in a Democrat-run House. "Tobacco is under siege," warns Funderburk. Etheridge "supports all those who are trying to wipe out tobacco." Etheridge, who grew up on a tobacco farm, says he would stand up to hostile Democrats. He, in turn, ties Funderburk to House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), who favors cuts in tobacco programs.

It takes money to spread a message, so the freshmen are launching a big PAC attack. In the waning days of the 104th Congress, first-termers have scheduled dozens of Washington fund-raising events seeking contributions from corporate and ideological political action committees. "They're trying to get every last dime," says Steven F. Stockmeyer, executive vice-president of the National Association of Business PACs.

Indeed, the GOP's posh Capitol Hill Club has been turned into a fund-raising factory with events such as Idaho frosh Helen Chenoweth's "Wild Game Gourmet Feast," Nevada first-termer Brian P. Bilbray's "Shrimp on the Barbie" bash, and Arizona rookie J.D. Hayworth's "Jackalope Jamboree." The fund-raising enthusiasm of Frank A. Cremeans of Ohio and Randy Tate of Washington has made them legends. "Rather than eating, they're dialing for dollars," one business lobbyist marvels.

The freshmen say they need the money to counter ad blitzes by unions and environmentalists that accuse the Republicans of trying to gut Medicare, educational programs, and antipollution laws. Last April, Representative Phil English (R-Pa.) launched a counteroffensive fueled in part by more than $375,000 from PACs. A recent poll shows English with a double-digit lead.

The National Republican Congressional Committee chipped in by threatening to sue stations that air what they call the false and malicious union commercials. As a result, 19 stations refused the ads or pulled them off the air.

MODERATE MANIA. But that's not all party leaders have done to protect endangered frosh. With a big shove from the congressional leadership, the GOP has worked hard to protect its moderates from right-wing primary challengers. The theory: In many Northeast and Midwest districts, GOP moderates stand a better chance in the general election.

In the Sept. 10 New York primary, top House leaders campaigned actively for abortion rights freshman Sue W. Kelly, who was being challenged from the right by former Representative Joseph J. DioGuardi. Gingrich went so far as to punish two antiabortion House conservatives who backed DioGuardi. As a result, every moderate freshman won renomination, even those who often disagree with the Speaker.

GOP officials also have attempted to protect their majority by cutting loose politically crippled freshmen. When Enid Greene of Utah and Wes Cooley of Oregon became enmeshed in scandals involving personal finances, the leadership successfully pressured them to drop their reelection bids. Their Republican replacements now lead comfortably.

Such tactics may help House Republicans weather a turbulent political season. But even the best-laid plans can't overcome the anger expressed by voters such as Tracy Smith, a 20-year-old waitress at the Country Inn in Spring Hope, N.C. Smith will vote for Democrat Etheridge, who preaches bipartisan conciliation, to send a message to Gingrich. "He acts so high and mighty," says Smith, whose family is Republican. "He needs to be knocked down a peg or two." That's why Funderburk, Martini, and their colleagues are furiously maneuvering to keep Newt at arm's length.

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