Victory In November Will Belong To The Party That Shows Up

Election '94 was dominated by the angry white male; '96 by the soccer mom. Now, campaign '98 is shaping up as a fight for the shoulder-shrugger. With Americans lulled by a buoyant economy, turnout this fall will decide who controls the House. That's why old-fashioned, get-out-the-vote drives will command as much attention as slick ad blitzes.

Pollsters expect only 1 in 3 of those eligible will vote--a record low. That is a boon for Republicans: Their better-educated and higher-earning troops are more likely to trek to the polls. But Democrats, needing just 11 more seats to reclaim the House, are targeting minorities and labor. "We're making sure our candidates don't take these voters for granted," says Matt Angle, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Democrats don't need to be reminded that the GOP swept to victory in '94 on a surge of new voters: 9 million more than voted for Republican House candidates in '90. Although GOP leaders credit the Contract With America for the triumph, party strategists say a crucial factor was a grassroots campaign to draw religious conservatives to the voting booth.

OFF-YEAR SLUMP. A back-to-basics approach also suits the Democrats' meager budget. The GOP has the edge in funds for House campaigns ($45 million to $23 million), so Democrats are concentrating on 15 seats where more African American votes can make a difference. A 5% rise in African American turnout could swing several Republican districts the other way, says Democratic strategist Mark Gersh.

That's no easy feat. Turnout slumps in off-year elections: Just 38.6% of eligible voters went to the polls in 1994, down from 49% in '96. But Democratic pollster Ron Lester says "a goal of 40% [of black voters] is reachable." To woo more African Americans, Democrats are dispatching influential blacks, such as Representatives Charles B. Rangel of New York and Maxine Waters of California, to key districts. And taking a leaf from the GOP playbook, Dems are putting new focus on helping low-income voters cast crucial mail-in ballots if they can't leave work on Election Day.

To lift Hispanic turnout, Democrats are stoking Latino ire over GOP measures to ban affirmative action, cut welfare to legal immigrants, and require English in government offices. They are using Spanish-language media to get their message out. And they'll be blast-faxing some incendiary comments of GOP hopeful Robert K. Dornan of California, regarded by many Hispanics as a Latino-basher.

Labor is the other key to the Dems' plan. Some 40% of union members aren't registered to vote--a huge opportunity. The AFL-CIO plans to spend millions more on labor turnout than it did in '96, when half of a $35 million union war chest went for get-out-the-vote efforts. Already, 300 union field coordinators--up from 135 in '96--are fanning out nationwide. They will oversee thousands of foot soldiers, many mobilized in California this spring to defeat an anti-union ballot initiative. "Labor will be heavily involved," says a party operative, "but it will be more subtle this time around."

The GOP strategy? Ride the coattails of popular governors up for reelection, such as George Pataki in New York, George W. Bush in Texas, and Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania. "These people have huge campaign funds," says Representative John Linder (R-Ga.), who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee. The GOP also aims to reenlist the Religious Right by pushing such issues as a reduction in the marriage tax penalty and a constitutional amendment to allow public-school prayer. "We got this thing running on all cylinders," says Christian Coalition Executive Director Randall J. Tate. Now, if it can just drive those voters to the polls.

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