The Year Of The Nervous Incumbent

What do Republican pit bull Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York and controversial Democratic Senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois have in common? With the economy robust and the electorate content, you'd think these incumbents would be cruising toward reelection this fall. Instead, they are two of the most endangered politicians on Capitol Hill. But they're not alone.

At least a half-dozen senators and about 40 House members are girding for tough races in '98, a surprisingly large number for what had been billed as the Year of the Incumbent. Why? Some--such as D'Amato and Moseley-Braun--are shoot-from-the-lip personalities who have ticked off a lot of voters. But the main reason is shifting political winds that make officeholders seem out of step with constituents. And with half as many congressional retirements this year as in recent elections, more incumbent necks are on the line. Admits a top Democratic strategist: "There are potentially a lot of losers out there."

Most lawmakers in trouble in the House are Republicans, raising Democratic hopes of picking up some of the 12 seats needed to regain control. Heavy House turnover could strengthen the hand of moderate Democrats, who are likely to succeed many of the '94 GOP revolutionaries. That could give centrists of both parties greater leverage in their struggles with ideologues of the Right and Left.

But the news isn't all bad for Republicans. In the Senate, more Democrats are vulnerable. And that has the GOP dreaming of gaining the five seats it needs for a filibuster-proof majority of 60. Senate first-termer Moseley-Braun, a top GOP target, has been involved in several imbroglios, such as her much criticized meeting with Nigeria's dictator. The GOP also sees opportunities to defeat two other women elected in '92: Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington. In South Carolina, moderate Democratic Senator Ernest F. Hollings, a four-decade political survivor, faces the fight of his life in a state that has become one of the nation's most Republican bastions.

Democrats are ready to feast on the feisty D'Amato, a three-term populist conservative whose harsh attacks on the Clintons have soured many Empire State voters. Former Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro, who entered the fray on Jan. 5, leads D'Amato in the polls. But she faces a tough primary, and D'Amato is a fierce fighter with a $9 million war chest.

And campaign contributions could roll in even faster. Why? A D'Amato loss might mean trouble for New York's financial community. He would likely be succeeded as Banking Committee chairman by Republican Phil Gramm of Texas, a frequent critic of big banks and Wall Street.

EXTREMISTS? In the House, some prominent veterans are sweating. Ten-term Representative Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.) is a longtime leader of a conservative Democratic bloc. But his district is now heavily Republican. On the flip side, moderate Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) holds a seat that has become increasingly Democratic, and she has been hurt by her role in overseeing the ethics case against House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Among the endangered conservative House GOP pols are Representatives J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.), Helen Chenoweth (Idaho), and Ron Paul (Tex.): Democrats are targeting them as extremists. Republicans aim to bounce first-termer Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), who upset conservative firebrand Robert K. Dornan in '96.

Sure, incumbents have an edge: money, name recognition, organization, and an economy that won't quit. But the good times may not be good enough to get many of them reelected.

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