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Stay The Course

By Stuart Rothenberg

WASHINGTON (Nov. 6) -- The GOP's sweeping victories in the New York 13th congressional district special election and Virginia governor's race, combined with Gov. Christie Whitman's narrow win in New Jersey, are a major disappointment for the Democrats, who hoped to win at least one of the contests, thereby creating some momentum going into the 1998 midterm elections.

But while Republican leaders were quick to read the results as a sign that a GOP steamroller would sweep through next year's elections, it's wise to note that the results merely reinforced the status quo. Together, the results from New York, New Jersey and Virginia constituted an incumbent's dream.

Obviously, Vito Fossella (R-NY 13) and Jim Gilmore (R-VA) weren't incumbents, but members of their party were the incumbents, and if there had been any kind of anti-incumbent voting, it would have shown up in all of the major races contested Tuesday. That never happened.

Republican strategists have already noted that taxes turned out to be a key issue, with Gilmore using it to defeat Beyer, Fossella using it to tag opponent Eric Vitaliano (D) as a liberal and even Democrat Jim McGreevey (D) using it to scare Whitman. Look for Republicans to press the issue next year in Congress, and continue to push it in next year's elections. It's not clear that the issue will have the bite the Republicans hope nationwide, but the issue's obvious appeal in the limited number of races this year can't be denied. Remember, however, that the issue was tied to local concerns.

While some observers have made the strange argument that "family values" were the "key" to Gilmore's victory, it is quite clear that taxes -- and particularly Gilmore's proposal to eliminate the personal property tax on vehicles -- was the real reason for the Republican's win. A plurality of those questioned in exit polling cited taxes as the issue which determined their vote, and Gilmore's credible showing in northern Virginia surely was the result of his tax proposal and Democrat Don Beyer's initially weak counter to it.

Gilmore would have carried conservative "social issue" voters anyway, but his ability to neutralize Beyer in the Washington suburbs -- one of the more liberal parts of the state and Beyer's home -- not only knocked Beyer off stride but gave Gilmore the margin he needed to win.

Beyer initially attempted to regain the advantage in northern Virginia by injecting abortion and the Christian Coalition into the debate, in the hope of getting more liberal and Democratic-leaning voters to change their focus from the car tax to more traditional ideological issues. But when that failed, he simply attacked Gilmore's plan to eliminate the tax as a fraud. By that time, Gilmore had built up a large advantage, and the Democrat merely looked desperate.

Gilmore ran a strong race from start to finish, initially emphasizing his pragmatism and distancing himself a couple of times from Gov. George Allen (R). He also inoculated himself against likely Democratic charges by running ads in northern Virginia emphasizing him commitment to education, including a promise for more teachers.

But Gilmore always went back to his bread-and-butter conservatism when it came to taxes, and his conservative views on abortion never assumed a dominant profile. And Beyer never had a single salable message -- other than, possibly, his support for education.

In New Jersey, conservative and pro-life defections from the governor nearly cost her the governorship. But, as in Virginia, pocketbook concerns were the real culprit for Whitman's near-defeat.

Whitman fashioned a very tenuous coalition of mainstream Republicans and Democrats to defeat McGreevey, with the governor winning one out of every five Democrats who cast votes. Exit polls showed taxes, auto insurance and the economy as the overriding issues, and McGreevey won an overwhelming 67 percent of those voters who said that auto insurance mattered most to them. Among those who said that the state's economic condition was "good" -- 63 percent of all people casting votes -- Whitman beat McGreevey 57-38 percent.

Pro-life Libertarian Murray Sabrin drew about 5 percent of the vote, and exit polls suggest that he may have hurt Whitman slightly, though it is also clear that had he not been on the ballot some of his supporters would have voted for McGreevey (or, more accurately, against Whitman), while many probably would not have voted at all. Suggestions that most or all of Sabrin's vote came from Whitman isn't supported by the exit polls or from private discussions with consultants from both major parties.

The size of Vito Fossella's victory margin in New York's 13th congressional district was probably the biggest surprise of the election. The Republican swamped Vitaliano 62-38 percent, suggesting that the GOP's financial advantage, combined with Mayor Rudy Giuliani's strength in Staten Island and Brooklyn, helped Fossella. The Democrats' argument that Vitaliano was more accomplished apparently did not resonate among voters who had already once embraced a very young Susan Molinari as their congresswoman.

Spotlight Archives:

Pennsylvania's 15th C.D. Looks Competitive (12/09/97)
In Idaho, A Rare Opportunity For Dems (11/19/97)
Stay The Course (11/6/97)
Car-Tax Issue Lifts Gilmore In Virginia (10/23/97)
New Jersey Governor's Race Down To The Wire (10/9/97)
Idaho Scramble: Who's Running For What? (9/25/97)
Hawaii's 1st C.D. Looks Like A Powder Keg (9/10/97)
Molinari's Departures Leaves Opening For Dems (8/25/97)
Georgia Governor's Race A Free-For-All (8/12/97)
Rep. Jon Fox Faces A One-Two Punch (7/30/97)
Sen. Hollings Prepares For A Fifth Term (7/22/97)
The House: Looking Ahead To 1998 (7/15/97)
Sen. Bond Has Re-election Edge (7/7/97)
Bumpers' Decision Encourages GOP (7/3/97)
Kentucky Senatorial Race A Toss-Up (6/24/97)
Nevada's Senator Reid Looks Like An Early Favorite (6/17/97)
1998 Gubernatorial Ratings (6/17/97)
Indiana's Evan Bayh Could Reclaim His Father's Old Senate Seat (6/3/97)
Who Will Control The House After '98? (5/30/97)
New Mexico's 3rd District: Color It Republican Green (5/20/97)
Don't Look For Many Senate Retirements In '98 (5/13/97)
Louisiana Senate, 1996: It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over (5/5/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Re-election Ratings (4/25/97)
Dem, GOP Tests In Connecticut, Arizona (4/9/97)
Don't Count Al D'Amato Out Yet (3/25/97)
Whitman A Favorite In New Jersey (2/25/97)
Sen. Boxer Could Be Vulnerable (2/11/97)
Impressive Bloodlines In Minnesota Governor's Race (1/28/97)
Looking Ahead To '98 Gubernatorial Races In California, Florida (1/23/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Ratings (1/23/97)
Family Feud: The Fight for RNC Chairman (1/10/97)

Spotlight 1996

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