NORTHBROOK, Ill. -- Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., is a perfect fit for his largely well-off, middle-of-the road suburban district. He favors abortion rights and gun control yet remains fairly conservative on tax and budget issues. He has easily won re-election nine times since joining the House in 1980.
The problem for the GOP is that Porter isn't running for re-election. And his decision to leave Congress -- along with Republican retirements in states such as California, Ohio, Florida and Oklahoma -- poses what could be the most serious threat to the GOP's narrow House majority this year.
As both parties gear up for what promises to be an expensive and contentious battle for control of the House, their focus is clearly on the two dozen or so seats where the incumbent has decided to retire or run for higher office. The reason is simple: Congressional incumbents are almost impossible to dislodge these days, given their overwhelming advantages in money, name recognition and ability to deliver for their districts. Last election, only 2 percent of House incumbents lost their seats.
But open seats are another matter -- three in five of the competitive open seats switched parties last time -- and this year the Democrats will be fighting on decidedly favorable terrain. Only six Democrats are retiring, compared with 21 Republicans, an imbalance that offers perhaps the biggest single reason Democrats think they have a chance of regaining the majority they lost in 1994.
''Each open seat in a competitive district brings Democrats one step closer to winning back the House,'' said Amy Walter, who tracks House races for the Cook Political Report.
Independent analysts believe more than half of the GOP's open seats are likely to remain Republican, so it's still far too early to make any definitive projections about who will control the House after the November elections. With the contest so close, both parties are working hard to make sure they have every possible advantage, raising record amounts of campaign contributions, scouring the country for top-notch challengers and -- perhaps most important -- making sure their incumbents stay in the game.
In this respect, at least, Democrats clearly have the upper hand. While the number of GOP open seats remains about average, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., and his associates have kept their retirements unusually low. Democrats, who can practically taste the majority, have an enormous incentive to hang on for another term to see if they can win the House back.
Gephardt has wooed, pleaded with and pestered any Democrat considering either running for higher office or abandoning politics altogether. He invented a rural task force for one lawmaker thinking about retirement and promised Rep. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who typically votes with the Democrats, a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, for giving up a prospective Senate campaign. Gephardt badgered Rep. Frank Pallone so frequently about his plans to run for the Senate that it became a running joke in the New Jersey Democrat's office.
Republicans, by contrast, have found that some of their reform impulses are coming back to haunt them. Senior Republicans such as Porter, for instance, have already reached the pinnacle of their power and are being forced under party rules to relinquish the chairmanships they have held for three terms. Still other, more junior Republicans vowed when they swept to power in 1994 to limit the number of terms they would serve, and they're honoring that commitment. Just last week, Rep. Tillie Fowler, R-Fla., who promised to serve only four terms, said she will keep that pledge and retire, as will three-term Reps. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Jack Metcalf (Wash.).
At least one factor -- ambition -- is beyond the leadership's control. Rep. Tom Campbell, a moderate Republican from Silicon Valley, recently decided to jump into the California Senate race, while conservative Rep. David M. McIntosh is running for governor of Indiana.
But the GOP leadership has been taken by surprise by some unexpected retirements. Both Porter and fellow Illinois Republican Tom Ewing, the closest friend in the House to Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., did not tell the speaker until just before making their announcements.
''I didn't want them to have an opportunity to talk me out of it,'' Porter said.
For Porter -- along with other senior members such as House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (Texas) and Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman William F. Goodling (Pa.) -- the prospect of having to relinquish a powerful perch helped push him out the door.
''The six-year limit on chairmen is a factor in these decisions,'' said Porter, who chairs the influential House subcommittee that oversees spending on health and education programs.
Archer and Goodling hold safe Republican seats, however, while Porter's district is more mixed. So Hastert and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (Va.) made a special effort to get him to change his mind. The two even said they were prepared to let Porter keep some of his old responsibilities, but he refused.
Porter has defied the GOP leadership before. Early last year he described his party's appropriations strategy as unrealistic and urged his colleagues to openly break their pledge of keeping spending to the limits outlined in the 1997 budget agreement. Porter also led a high-profile crusade for human rights along with his wife, Kathryn, who cried visibly at his retirement announcement and insisted she would remain in Washington to continue their international work. Even now, Porter expresses regret at the thought of giving up the job he has held for almost 20 years.
''It's the best job in the world,'' he said. ''I can't understand why everybody isn't running for it.''
Davis argues that the importance of open seats has been exaggerated. He said the party can defend the six seats it sees as vulnerable and may make gains in some districts where Democrats are retiring. But he acknowledged that retirements in suburban swing districts pose a problem for the party. ''If we had Porter running, this is something we wouldn't have to worry about,'' he said. ''Now we have to worry about it.''
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