Dems In Overdrive

They're scrambling to regain the House. It won't be easy

A snowstorm was pounding Milwaukee on Apr. 12 as House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt's plane touched down. Undaunted, the Missouri Democrat hopped into Lydia C. Spottswood's Jeep Cherokee and launched into his pitch. During the ride downtown, Gephardt urged Spottswood to run for the House seat she had narrowly lost to Republican Mark W. Neumann five months before. "He emphasized the importance of getting in the race early, and he was very supportive," says Spottswood, president of a Wisconsin health education program. Now, she's leaning toward another bid.

For Democrats, it's Mission: Impossible: winning back control of the House in 1998. Or is it? The party of a sitting President hasn't gained House seats in a midterm election since 1934. But if the Dems break that jinx and pick up 10, the stalled Republican Revolution led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) could collapse. For Gephardt, there's added incentive: Chits gained from helping fellow Dems could boost his chances for a Presidential run two years hence, if Vice-President Al Gore gets sucked under by Donorgate.

That's why the relentless Missourian has crisscrossed the country nearly every weekend since the November elections. The goal: sign up top-notch contenders for 30 to 40 key House races by midsummer. That strategy relies on a strange brew of aggressive fund-raising while putting distance between Democratic Hill wannabes and the Clinton White House campaign-finance scandals.

The ambitious recruitment drive is a far cry from the lassitude of House Dems two years ago. "We were reeling after we lost [the House] in '94," concedes Gephardt. But now, he insists, "We're smarter, and we're much better positioned" to win the House back.

CLOSE CALLS. The Democratic leaders' game plan focuses on wooing back the best of a large crop of Dems who came within a razor's edge of winning House seats in '96. Last November, the GOP won 26 seats with 51% of the vote or less. Democrats also count on the GOP's disarray on Capitol Hill to help bring out a stronger field of Democratic newcomers in '98. "We're well ahead of the pace in terms of locking people in and having many of the really good people who ran last time running," says Daniel Sallick, a strategist with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

Besides Spottswood, House Dems' roster of promising challengers includes:

-- Shelley Berkley, a vice-president at the Sands Hotel Casino in Las Vegas and a member of Nevada's University & Community College System Board of Regents. Berkley, a past state legislator active in medical and Jewish groups, is running for the seat now held by Representative John Ensign (R-Nev.).

-- Baron Hill, a Merrill Lynch & Co. exec and ex-college basketball star who nearly defeated Indiana Republican Dan Coats in a 1990 Senate bid. He's weighing a run for the seat of retiring Representative Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.).

-- Steve Owens, an Arizona lawyer and former Gore aide. Owens lost a '96 race to GOP incumbent J.D. Hayworth by less than one percentage point.

-- Mike Thompson, a popular California state senator and former vintner, who has considerable GOP support. Thompson, who declined Democratic entreaties to run in 1996, will try to unseat Representative Frank Riggs (R-Calif.).

House Democratic contenders will be flush with cash. Aided by Gephardt's peripatetic fund-raising efforts, the DCCC raked in nearly $2 million in the first quarter of 1997, $685,000 more than it took in during the same period in 1995. House members are pitching in, too. They'll host a slew of events such as an Apr. 7 luncheon organized by the party's six Minnesota Representatives. The DCCC's take: $55,000.

Democratic coffers are also getting indirect help from the party's unpopular nemesis, Newt Gingrich. According to a DCCC memo, donations shot up 296% from the previous week during Gingrich's well-publicized trip to China. "Democrats see Gingrich on TV and say `Where's that envelope?' and send us a check," laughs Representative Martin Frost (D-Tex.), the DCCC chairman.

Frost's campaign committee already has nine operatives scattered across the country identifying candidates and assisting them with fund-raising and communications. In Washington, Gephardt gets recruiting help from a team led by Representative Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and composed of members with ties to key Democratic factions.

TOUGH SLOG. As he beats the bushes for candidates, Gephardt is also staking out family- and worker-friendly issues for Democrats to run on in 1998. It's an agenda with strong appeal to middle-class voters and to labor, a bedrock constituency. Next up: proposals to provide health care for America's 10 million uninsured children and tax breaks for companies that offer broader profit-sharing and stock option plans.

In the process, Gephardt is distancing House Democrats from the White House. He opposed fiddling with the consumer price index, cooling Clinton's support for CPI reform. And he has blasted its strategies for expanding the North America Free Trade Agreement and allowing China into the World Trade Organization. Next: beating up on the Federal Reserve for interest-rate hikes.

The White House is inclined to be tolerant, so long as Gephardt doesn't slam Clinton too hard. "We cut him a lot of flexibility when it comes to managing the complex politics of the Democratic caucus," says a top White House staffer.

Will the Dems' nonstop recruiting and policy freelancing pay off? It's a tough slog. "They're swimming against the tide of history," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato. But some analysts think the Democrats have a fighting chance of at least picking up some seats. "The House is very much in play because the Republican majority is so thin and many Republican seats were narrowly won," says Steven E. Schier, head of the political science department at Carleton College. That's why Gephardt will be logging frequent-flier miles for months to come.

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