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Reluctant Warriors: Why The Gop Won't Storm The Senate


Washington Outlook

RELUCTANT WARRIORS: WHY THE GOP WON'T STORM THE SENATE

By all rights, Terry Considine should be getting ready for a campaign to unseat Senator Tim Wirth (D-Colo.) next year. A successful businessman and state senator who is a national leader of the movement to limit legislators' terms, Considine is articulate, savvy, and well-known in his state. In short, he's just the sort of candidate on whom Republicans rest their hopes for recapturing the Senate in 1992. But Considine is holding back, and his reluctance and that of politicians like him spells big trouble for the GOP.

Like many first-term Democrats, Wirth looks beatable. He won with barely 50% of the vote in 1986 and hurt himself in conservative Colorado by opposing the use of force in the Persian Gulf. Still, says Considine, "I'm just not consumed with the idea. I wonder if anyone can accomplish anything at the federal level anymore. Business people are rewarded for getting things done. Political people in Washington are rewarded for not making mistakes."

JUST SAYING NO. Considine's vacillation is Senator Phil Gramm's worst nightmare. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Texan has been barnstorming the country, trying to recruit top-notch GOP challengers. In the triumphant aftermath of the war, Gramm thought President Bush's stratospheric approval ratings would make his job easy. But many of Gramm's first choices are saying no, and some shaky Democratic incumbents could wind up as shoo-ins. Chortles Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin: "Republicans thought they would have an A-team lined up by now, but they don't even have a C-team."

To retake the Senate, the GOP needs a net gain of seven seats--a big order. Much of the bloom has gone off the gulf victory. A challenger starts off with a big fund-raising disadvantage against even a weak incumbent. In the South, where GOP prospects should be best, the weakness of the party at the state and local levels means that there are few Republicans who have a good shot at winning--and most of those have jobs they're reluctant to give up.

In South Carolina, for example, Senator Ernest F. Hollings may be the most vulnerable of Democratic veterans. A passionate opponent of the gulf war resolution and irascible Washington insider, Hollings has seen his approval ratings plummet. More ominously for his political future, South Carolina is registering new Republican voters faster than any other Southern state. Yet Gramm has been unable to persuade popular Governor Carroll A. Campbell Jr. to jump into the race. In Nevada, former Attorney General Brian McKay is reluctant to leave his Las Vegas law practice. That could give Democratic incumbent Harry Reid a free ride to reelection.

Certainly, there are Republicans out there ready to run. Many state chairmen say they've been peppered with calls. In Ohio, for example, Robert A. Taft II is waffling whether to challenge Keating Five member John Glenn. But nine other Republicans say they're eager to step in. Trouble is, only Taft is likely to give Glenn a tough race.

Gramm knows what he's looking for. "We want proven winners, successful in business and the professions, who have skills but have never used them in politics," he says. "We're looking for Wendell Willkie candidates."

The danger for the Republicans is that Gramm might get exactly what he's asking for--rank amateurs. Willkie was a party-switching businessman who came out of nowhere in 1940 to win the GOP Presidential nomination. But Willkie was crushed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The way things are going in the runup to the 1992 Senate races, the GOP may find itself again with enthusiastic neophytes who are no substitute for experienced vote-getters in a tough race.EDITED BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM Douglas Harbrecht and Paula Dwyer


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