Republican strategists have been quick to dismiss
the significance of the
Democratic victories during this November's elections. Republican pollster Whit
Ayres declared that they "tell us almost nothing about the likely election
outcomes a year from now." But the off-year gubernatorial elections in New Jersey
and Virginia--held in the first year of a new president's term--usually tell us a
great deal about where American politics is headed. For four decades, elections
in New Jersey and Virginia have accurately registered changes in the relative
national strength of the two major parties. In 1989, for instance, Democrats
swept the two states, foreshadowing the Democrats' victories in 1992. In 1993
Republicans won both states, presaging the Republican triumph in the 1994
congressional elections. This year Republican candidates were supposed to benefit
from George W. Bush's popularity after the September 11 terrorist attacks. But
solid Democratic victories in both states may foretell Democratic success in
November 2002--and perhaps beyond.
The victory of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim McGreevey in New Jersey
is the latest step in the state's political journey from right to left. From 1968
to 1988, New Jersey voted for Republican presidential candidates; but it began to
turn Democratic in 1989, when James Florio was elected governor. Democrats
suffered a setback when politically tone-deaf Florio broke his campaign promise
not to raise taxes. Bill Clinton barely won in 1992, and in 1993 Republican
Christine Whitman was able to oust Florio. But after conservative Republicans
took control of Congress the following year and began trying to shut down federal
agencies and cabinet departments, New Jersey voters resumed their movement toward
the Democratic Party. In 2000, Gore won the state by 56 percent to 40
percent--almost the same margin by which McGreevey later defeated Republican Bret
There were three keys to Democratic success in the 1990s. First, black and
Latino voters, who are overwhelmingly Democratic, grew from 26 percent of the
state's population to 34 percent--giving Democrats a large demographic head start
in the electoral tally. Second, white working-class voters in the southern and
central parts of the state returned to the fold--driven somewhat by the recession
of the early 1990s, which discredited Reaganomics, and by the Democrats' embrace
of conservative views on crime, welfare, and fiscal policy. In 1992 many of these
voters backed Reform Party candidate Ross Perot. But in 1996, they supported
Clinton; in 2000, Gore. Third, upscale professionals, particularly women, began
backing Democrats out of opposition to Republican views on guns, abortion, and
McGreevey, the mayor of Woodbridge, a suburban township, was well positioned
to take advantage of these trends. A typical Democrat, he sees himself as a foe
of corporate greed and indifference: When he almost upset Whitman in 1997, he
focused his campaign on the state's exorbitant automobile-insurance rates. And he
is a pro-choice Catholic and a gun-control advocate. But McGreevey, former
chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council's chapter in New Jersey, is also a
fiscal moderate who boasts of creating balanced budgets and keeping taxes down
and supports character education in schools and welfare reform.
His opponent, Schundler, the two-term mayor of Jersey City, was a Jack Kemp
Republican who believed in tax cuts for the well-to-do and enterprise zones for
inner cities. But he also enthusiastically courted the National Rifle Association
and the religious right; in a successful primary battle against moderate
Republican Bob Franks, he invoked his support for the NRA's concealed-weapons
legislation and his opposition to abortion under any circumstances. In the fall,
Schundler tried to run a George W. Bush-style campaign, trumpeting his compassion
for minorities while pledging to cut taxes by eliminating the tolls on the Garden
State Parkway. In ads and debates, he accused McGreevey of being a Florio clone
who would raise taxes once in office. Schundler also tried to summon support
among New Jersey Catholics and Evangelicals by promising a voucher system that
would fund students who chose to attend private or parochial schools.
But after September 11, with the economy slumping and public debt soaring,
Schundler's proposal to get rid of tolls seemed frivolous and irresponsible.
According to exit polls, the 21 percent of voters who thought that the most
important issue was the economy backed McGreevey by 56 percent to 41 percent.
Schundler's voucher scheme was also widely unpopular, except among the 9 percent
of New Jerseyans who send their children to private schools. All in all, voters
who thought that education was the most important issue backed McGreevey by 71
percent to 26 percent. Unable to gain traction on his own issues, Schundler was
forced onto the defensive by McGreevey's attacks against his position on guns and
abortion. By election's end, Schundler had changed his position on concealed
weapons and was running ads claiming that his opposition to abortion would not
affect his behavior as governor.
On election day, McGreevey won all the constituencies that had backed Gore in
2000. He got 88 percent of the black vote, 72 percent of the Latino vote, and 59
percent of the women's vote. He took 55 percent--the same as Gore--in upscale
Bergen County, a suburb of New York City that had consistently voted Republican
until the 1996 election. McGreevey also won white, working-class Gloucester,
Burlington, Cumberland, and Middlesex Counties, all of which had voted for Ronald
Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the 1980s presidential elections. Gloucester
County in southern New Jersey had backed the elder Bush over Michael Dukakis by
59 percent to 40 percent. McGreevey won it by 58 percent to 40 percent--a clear
sign of how dependably Democratic New Jersey has become.
Virginia has also been a swing state, but it has historically pivoted on a
more Republican-and-conservative axis than New Jersey has [see John B. Judis,
"Sneak Preview," TAP, July 2-16, 2001].
Former Senator Chuck Robb and former
Governor Douglas Wilder showed that moderate Democrats could eke out victories if
they got big enough margins among minorities and socially liberal voters in the
burgeoning Washington, D.C., suburbs of Fairfax and Arlington Counties. But in
the 1990s, Republicans won over suburban voters by muting their social
conservatism and by promising to cut taxes. On the eve of this November's
election, Republicans controlled every major statewide office.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Warner, a telecommunications
multimillionaire from Fairfax County, had been Wilder's campaign manager and an
aide to Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd. He figured that he could count on support
from minorities and liberal Democrats; but in order to woo upscale suburban
voters, he promised--in response to the budget crisis that Republican tax cuts
created--to bring "honest budgets back to Virginia" while improving the state's
education and transportation systems.
Warner made a concerted effort to win over rural and small-town white voters
in southern Virginia as well. These voters had been loyal Democrats until the
civil-rights movement hit Virginia in the early 1960s. They backed Barry
Goldwater in 1964 and George Wallace in 1968 and, since then, have regularly
supported Republicans against any Democrats they suspected of being tied to the
national party. But in the past two years, Southside's textile plants and tobacco
farms have been going out of business. Warner didn't hedge his commitment to
civil rights; but he did promise not to tighten the state's gun laws, and he
sponsored a NASCAR team and recruited country-music stars for his political ads.
In repeated visits, he promised clean water--a key issue for farmers--and
economic-development money to bring high-tech industry to the area.
To dislodge Warner's early lead, his opponent, former Attorney General Mark
Earley, resorted to typical conservative-Republican tactics. In Southside he ran
advertisements that falsely insinuated that Warner favored gay marriage, stricter
gun-control laws, and the abolition of capital punishment. (Republican leaflets
also used a standard racist trick of picturing Warner next to the black candidate
for attorney general.) Earley tried to appeal to suburban voters by branding
Warner a tax-and-spend liberal--attacking his support for a referendum in
northern Virginia to determine whether to raise the sales tax in order to improve
the area's clogged transportation arteries.
But Earley's various ploys backfired: The state's editorialists accused him of
"shoveling up crudely concocted mistruths." And Warner's sales-tax referendum
turned out to be extremely popular in northern Virginia (favored by a margin of
four to one among the region's voters, according to a Washington Post poll).
Finally, Earley tried to take advantage of September 11. He ran as the candidate
of "safety and security" and filled the airwaves with an endorsement from New
York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But Virginians recognized that the road to safety from
Osama bin Laden lay in Washington, not in Richmond.
Warner won virginia by 52 percent to 47 percent. He took Fairfax County, the
state's largest, by 54 percent to 45 percent and won Richmond by 73 percent to 26
percent. But he also captured southern Virginia. He took Appomattox County--which
in 2000 had gone to George W. Bush by 62 percent to 35 percent--by 51 percent to
47 percent. He won Henry County (which had backed Bush by 55 to 41 in 2000) by 61
percent to 36 percent. Warner's success dramatically demonstrated that a Democrat
can win the region's voters on economic issues as long as he or she conveys
respect for their culture and assures them that they can keep their guns.
(Conversely, the Democratic candidate for attorney general--who backed stricter
gun control and a moratorium on the death penalty--was routed by his Republican
Republican strategists imputed their defeats in New Jersey and Virginia to
inept candidates, but they were singing a different tune last summer when
Schundler and Earley were nominated. Schundler was far too conservative for the
New Jersey electorate, but to say that is to acknowledge that the state's
electorate has now aligned itself nationally with moderate Democrats.
(Republicans could elect statewide candidates in New Jersey, but they have to be,
like Whitman or New York City Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg, closet Democrats at
odds with Tom DeLay and Dick Armey.) In Virginia, Earley was initially seen as
the strongest possible candidate. He was hampered by Republican bickering over
the state-budget shortfall--infighting caused by an irresponsible antitax
strategy that Republicans have championed nationwide for two decades and that
Bush put into effect this year in Washington. It hurt the Virginia Republicans
this November, and it is likely to hurt other Republicans in November 2002.
September 11 did affect the campaigns, but in an unexpected way: It strengthened
the Democratic case for positive government and discredited the kind of facile
antigovernment populism that Republicans have employed since the late 1970s.
That, too, should put the Democrats in good stead for elections to come.