This was the 40th consecutive summer in which a Democratic House of Representatives adjourned for its Fourth of July recess. Will there be a 41st? Probably. But there are new signs of deep, deep trouble for Democrats, enough for a 30-seat loss that would give Republicans working controland possibly for the 40-seat turnover that would make Newt Gingrich the first Republican speaker in 40 years. The bad news is most dramatically revealed in the fact that Democratic incumbents are actually trailing in polls in five key races:
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In suburban Philadelphia, freshman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky trails Republican Jon Fox by 47-29 in a poll done for Fox. If that's anywhere close to right, it's astonishing; pollsters usually say incumbents are in trouble when they're leading 47-29. One problem: MMM, as she is called, cast the 218th and deciding vote for Bill Clinton's 1993 budget package.
A June Omaha World-Herald poll has Nebraska incumbent Peter Hoagland trailing Republican Jon Christensen 50-39. A Republican poll has it 52-36. Christensen was supposed to be a hard-to-sell candidate, since he's associated with the religious right. But he won a thumping primary victory and now apparently leads. Hoagland is hard-working and personally attractive. But he was hurt by a vote in the Ways and Means Committee against eliminating a requirement that employers pay for their workers' health insurance.
In Idaho, Larry LaRocco trails Helen Chenoweth 46-44 in a May poll by a local television station. That's not a statistically significant margin, but for a competent and hard-working incumbent to be running only even against a Republican identified with the religious right is not a good sign.
In Iowa, Des Moines plastic surgeon Greg Ganske in his own poll leads Democrat Neal Smith by 49-33. What's astounding about this result is that Smith has been representing the Des Moines area since 1958.
In Washington's Northern Virginia suburbs, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Tom Davis has a poll showing him well ahead of freshman Democrat Leslie Byrne. Two years ago Byrne had enthusiastic feminist support, and she has been a solid Clinton supporter, who urged disciplining Democrats who didn't vote with their party's House leadership. That evidently has not gone over well in a district split almost evenly between Clinton and George Bush in 1992.
Caveats. None of these poll results is etched in stone; some can be discounted as partisan, and voters' party loyalty can oscillate wildly, as it did when Congress and Bush were negotiating a tax increase in October 1990. In three of these races, Republicans came off big primary wins, their popularity buoyed by expensive TV ads, while the Democratic incumbents had been relatively quiet. All these Democrats are attractive individuals with public achievements that may prove popular. These races may simply have tightened up early.
Still, if the poll results signal a trend, it's ominous for Democrats. "In 1980, when we picked up so many seats, it wasn't until October that we had any challengers ahead of incumbents in polls," observes Republican pollster Linda Divall. Democratic House strategist Mark Gersh says, "It's unprecedented for an incumbent untarnished by scandal"and these incumbents are clean as a whistle"to be behind." "It's not a pretty sight," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. A party expects its dogs to run behind. It is in trouble when its strong horses are trailing.