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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Candidates Seeking Distance From Dole

WASHINGTON -- In a striking election-year conversion, the Republicans who seized control of Congress in 1994 by coalescing into a proud, disciplined band of team players have dissolved into a jostling pack of political free agents.

As they head into the final days of the campaign season, Republicans in key congressional races are distancing themselves from their party's "Contract With America," from their legislative leadership and even, in some cases, from party presidential nominee Bob Dole.

Talk of the contract has faded. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has become "persona non grata" in many swing districts. The Republican Party even plans to launch a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz this week calling on voters to support Republican House candidates to avoid giving the president and "liberal special interests" a "blank check" in the new Congress.

"This is 435 individual races, and everybody's got to do what they got to do to win," said Rich Galen, a top aide to Gingrich. "In the 40 or 50 campaigns that are very close, they have to do whatever works for them."

If Republicans manage to keep control of the House, their success may be attributable to a sharp shift in strategy from two years ago, when they nationalized congressional elections and ran on a clear party agenda.

"One of the real questions after 1994 was, would Republicans stick together and run for re-election as members of a team?" said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. "The question has been answered, and the answer is no."

Many Republican candidates, Jacobson noted, "are asking voters to evaluate their service to the district while ignoring the contract, ignoring the national party -- ignoring Dole for that matter."

Republicans are hardly pioneers of this strategy. Democrats -- especially those in the party's conservative wing -- for years shunned national leaders such as House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill Jr. and presidential candidates such as Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988.

"Republicans are doing what Democrats made into an art form," said Anita Dunn, a Democratic political consultant. "They are saying, 'This race is about me, my record, this district. Is there a presidential election going on?'"

Indeed, that is the way House races traditionally have been run. The Republican effort to nationalize the congressional election in 1994 was the exception, not the rule.

But the return to the all-politics-is-local strategy will have real consequences if the party retain its majority. If some Republicans run with the party program and others run away from it, a new Republican majority will have a far more muddled mandate than it had in 1994.

There are still plenty of Republicans running as unapologetic party loyalists. But heading into the final days of the campaign, Republican strategists suggest that many candidates may strike out on their own in a new way.

The Republican Party's new television ad, which will air in 50 congressional districts beginning Monday, never mentions Clinton or Republican nominee Robert Dole, according to party sources. But the ad's implicit message is that a re-elected Clinton could return to the policies of his first two years in office -- when Democrats had majorities in both chambers of Congress -- unless Republicans maintain their control of the House.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which oversees the campaigns of Republican House candidates, plans to spend $3 million to $4 million on the new ad, according to sources.

Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour denied last week that making the "blank check" argument amounts to pulling the plug on Dole's candidacy.

"Our first priority as a party is to elect Bob Dole president," Barbour said. But he added, "if Clinton is elected to a second term, heaven forbid, we want to make sure that he doesn't have a blank check and that there is a Republican Congress to keep a check on him."


Wherever Dole goes, he has plenty of party incumbents and candidates scrambling to join him on stage to boost his candidacy, if not their own.