Nothing for the State GOP to Gloat About

BARRY RASCOVAR

November 07, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

State Republicans are jubilant about this past week's election returns. And why not?

Conservative themes carried the day. There's a Republican governor now in Virginia and another in New Jersey. There's a Republican mayor in New York for the first time in 20 years. Could this be a trend that will continue next year, carrying Maryland's GOP to unprecedented victories?

Don't count on it. Drawing parallels with elections in other states is dangerous. In all three cases, Republicans won because local circumstances were in their favor. The circumstances in Maryland come November 1994 may not be so hospitable to Republican challenges.

In the Virginia election, Republican George Allen was handed the governorship by Democratic nominee Mary Sue Terry, who managed to turn an early 29-point lead in the polls into a 17-point defeat. That's an incredible shift of 46 percentage points. She ran an abysmal campaign and deserved to lose.

But Ms. Terry was also handicapped by years of vicious Democratic feuding between Gov. Douglas Wilder and Sen. Charles Robb. Voters clearly had had enough of Democratic rule. Virginia is still a conservative state. No wonder the GOP also won the attorney general's office and nearly seized control of the House and Senate, too.

In New Jersey, Republican Christine Whitman managed to recover from her early flubs that made her look like a sure loser. New Jersey voters, it turned out, still wanted revenge for Democratic incumbent Jim Florio's $2.8 billion tax increase. They got it, though just barely.

And in New York, city voters said they were dissatisfied with the decent but ineffectual leadership of Democratic Mayor David Dinkins. They also were clearly worried about the crime problem. So they made Republican ex-prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani -- who had nearly won four years ago -- the new mayor, by a whisker.

Only in one case -- Virginia -- was there a voter mandate, and that may have had more to do with the anger at 12 years of Democratic rule than with the quality of the Republican ticket. Voters are certainly upset, but they're uncertain how to channel that outrage.

In all three elections, the pro-gun lobby won. In Virginia, there was the added element of fundamentalist Christian right-wingers coming out in force to support their own colleague running for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket. These voters tended to vote for other Republican candidates, too.

All this good news from Republicans may prove meaningless for Maryland's GOP. There's no Jim Florio running here for re-election next year. Sadly for Republicans, Governor Schaefer won't be on the ballot. In fact, all the Democratic nominees for governor are already disowning Mr. Schaefer. A Whitman-style campaign against a tax-and-spend incumbent won't work.

Nor is a Giuliani-style campaign likely to pay off in Maryland. Every candidate will be vowing a get-tougher-on-criminals administration. And the type of widespread incompetence and ineptness shown by the Dinkins administration in New York hasn't surfaced to the same degree in Maryland.

The closest parallel to Maryland politics might be in Virginia. Democrats dominate both states. But Maryland's Republicans are nowhere near as strong as their Virginia counterparts. Also, the pro-gun lobby in Maryland is anemic compared with the Virginia group -- and the anti-gun lobby seems always to win at the polls in Maryland. Besides, an anti-crime campaign probably will be a top theme of both Democratic and Republican nominees for governor.

The one common thread in these elections is the public's distaste for incumbents. But the Democratic incumbents in Maryland races next year aren't the Florio or Schaefer type -- Sen. Paul Sarbanes, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein. Everyone agrees Mr. Goldstein will be tough to beat. Mr. Curran is so shaky he could well lose in the Democratic primary. And Mr. Sarbanes is regarded as vulnerable, but no Republican with name recognition wants to take him on.

So the anti-incumbent sentiment may not work to the Republicans' advantage the way it did last Tuesday. And if the nation's economy finally starts showing improvement next year, the anger toward the party in power may dissipate.

Still, 1994 presents Maryland Republicans with their best chance in a generation to make major political inroads. But plotting next year's campaign strategy on what worked in New Jersey and Virginia last Tuesday would be a mistake. Local elections are usually decided on the basis of local issues that are unique to that particular jurisdiction.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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