U.S. House -- Foley Concedes; Nethercutt Looks Ahead -- House Speaker Lost Clout Even Before His Historic Defeat

SPOKANE - Swept away in yesterday's historic shift of congressional power, Tom Foley conceded today that he had become the first speaker of the House since the Civil War to lose a bid for re-election.

"I know the thrill of election as well as the honor of service," Foley said in a brief statement this morning with his wife, Heather, at this side. "We understand the thrill George Nethercutt and his family are feeling."

Nethercutt, the Spokane lawyer who challenged Foley, carried every county in the 5th District but populous Spokane County.

At his own press conference today, Nethercutt repeated a campaign pledge that he planned to serve only three terms.

"I think I can have a large impact on the Republican majority in six years," he said.

Even if Foley had survived yesterday's Republican tsunami, it would have been a shallow victory. With Republicans winning control of the House for the first time in 40 years, he would no longer be speaker and the political clout that Foley made his chief campaign selling point would in large part vanish.

Foley, sounding statesmanlike and philosophical last night after the harshest campaign of his career, said Democrats fell victim to the view that Congress was the barrier to change rather than its engine.

He noted Democrats had trimmed the deficit, cut the federal work force and didn't raise taxes on most Americans, but conceded voters don't believe it. The irony, he charged last night, is that Republicans now will benefit from having obstructed many of those changes.

The public, he told supporters and a throng of reporters at a glum campaign party, "is dissatisfied with the pace of change. . . . To a large extent there is a problem of perception. Now when those changes are really coming about, there is a sense the opposite is happening."

But, as ever, he was gracious as he finally conceded.

"It is finally my hope," he said, "that we will have with this new Congress an opportunity to see a new spirit of bipartisanship . . . Despite what some might think, the overwhelming membership of Congress, Repubicans and Democrats, are wonderful, upstanding, talented people."

Several longtime Foley loyalists cried as results came in last night. Others were angry. "This is humiliating to the 5th District," said one man.

The crowd at Nethercutt's celebration had a lot more fun. A jazz band played in one corner, while the throng raucously cheered every new return. The candidate autographed T-shirts and passed out "We Made History" buttons.

"This is heaven. It's like sugar," shouted Dennis Murphy, a controller for a Spokane corporation. "We've waited 40 years for a dramatic change in this country and now we get to be a big part of it."

"It's a message that people want to downsize government. They want government to use common sense," said Nethercutt. "This isn't just another congressional race. This is the speaker we were running against and the measure of our accomplishment above what many thought it would be."

There is a certain symmetry in Foley's political predicament.

Foley was first elected in the great Democratic landslide of 1964, unseating longtime Rep. Walt Horan by telling Eastern Washington voters that after 22 years in office it was finally time for the incumbent to retire.

Nethercutt, the beneficiary of an awesome Republican onslaught, drew parallels between the over-the-hill Horan of 1964 and the Foley of three decades later.

Foley, say his supporters, was caught up in a new, more visceral-type of politics than the courtly incumbent was ill-equipped to deal with. They said Foley initially underestimated how tough a race he was in and the sourness of the public mood.

Foley spent more than $1.6 million on the campaign. Corporations like Boeing and unions invested big chunks of money in get-out-the-vote efforts to save the speaker. For the first time, Foley ran negative ads - day after day hitting Nethercutt with attacks on the Republican for his views and his character.

In the past, Foley ran against very conservative Republicans with strong positions on emotional issues like abortion. Foley supporters say Nethercutt, by contrast, benefited from the public's fuzzy knowledge of who he was and what his specific views were.

"George Nethercutt really didn't have to say much," says state Rep. Lisa Brown, a Spokane Democrat attending the election party. "He just had to be there. The public saw Tom Foley as a symbol of Congress."

Nethercutt, a former county GOP chairman and former aide to Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, spent less than half the money of the incumbent.

National conservative groups, ranging from those supporting term limits to those opposing statehood for Washington, D.C., weighed in with their own efforts to knock off the speaker. Both sides agree the most damaging came from the National Rifle Association, Foley's longtime ally, which spent at least $50,000 against the speaker because of his support for a ban on assault weapons.

"We lost a lot of NRA voters," says Foley spokesman Jeff Biggs. "In the past, if you were with the NRA, virtually everything else didn't matter with a lot of those voters."

But among voters in Chatteroy, a small town in the dairy and timber country north of Spokane, Foley's problems went far deeper than guns.

Nearly all the voters interviewed there said they had supported Foley in the past. Most weren't going to vote for him this time, even though they knew little about Nethercutt.