Whitman wins tight N.J. race Gilmore, GOP sweep Virginia's top 3 posts for first time

'No car tax' slogan works

November 05, 1997|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Republicans swept yesterday's major off-year elections, as Gov. Christine Todd Whitman narrowly escaped defeat in New Jersey and former Attorney General James S. Gilmore III led a historic Republican landslide to become governor of Virginia.

Those looking for a message in the '97 returns could find it in the issues that dominated in both states: rising local property taxes and the high cost of owning a car.

Yesterday's vote produced no change of party control in either New Jersey or Virginia, the only states electing governors this year. At the same time, it looked like a good omen for Republicans as they prepare to defend their majority in Congress in next fall's mid-term election.

Based on nearly complete returns, Whitman was leading Democrat James E. McGreevey by 22,000 votes, out of more than 2.2 million. In Virginia, Gilmore won easily over Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. He will succeed Republican Gov. George F. Allen, who was barred by law from seeking re-election.

Meanwhile, Republican Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York won a second term. Republicans also held the only House seat at stake yesterday, as City Councilman Vito Fossella won a special election on Staten Island.

Whitman's close call at the hands of Garden State voters keeps alive the career of the Republican Party's most prominent female elected official and one of its few remaining moderates of stature. Though her support for abortion rights puts her sharply at odds with Republican conservatives, the 51-year-old governor has often been mentioned as a possible presidential or vice-presidential candidate.

Her strength among female voters has made her an attractive ticket-balancer for a party that has seen its gender gap between men and women widen in recent years. And it was the support of female voters that gave Whitman her razor-thin victory yesterday.

According to exit polls, Whitman received 50 percent of the women's vote, to 47 percent for McGreevey. She received weaker support from men.

"It's all right -- we got the four more years," Whitman said in brief victory remarks to a crowd of exultant backers at her campaign headquarters early today. "And you know something? Those next four years are going to be even better than the last."

As some Republicans had feared, the race was closer than expected, in part because of Libertarian Murray Sabrin, a staunch anti-abortion candidate who drew support from voters enraged by Whitman's veto of a ban on late-term abortions. Sabrin, a college professor, got more than 100,000 votes, or 5 percent of the total.

Late in the campaign, Whitman was forced to acknowledge that, as governor, she had failed to pay sufficient attention to high local property taxes and auto insurance rates, issues that McGreevey made the centerpiece of his campaign.

For years, New Jersey has had the nation's highest auto insurance rates. And among the many voters who considered that issue very important, McGreevey held a solid advantage, 57 percent to 39 percent, the exit polls showed.

Whitman was also on the defensive over taxes, because of a belief that the income tax cut she pushed through early in her term had led to higher local property taxes. Interviews with voters yesterday found that Whitman's tax cut had given her no real advantage.

In Virginia, Gilmore's triumph sent shock waves through the Democratic establishment. GOP candidates were victorious in races for the top three offices in the Old Dominion for the first time in at least 100 years.

In the biggest upset of the night, John H. Hager, a former tobacco company executive who has polio and campaigned in a wheelchair, upset former Democratic U.S. Rep. L. F. Payne Jr. in the race for lieutenant governor, giving Republicans effective control of the state Senate.

The Republican sweep was fueled by Gilmore's "no car tax" slogan, which tapped a deep pool of public resentment over personal property taxes on cars and trucks. His pledge to virtually eliminate the hated tax became the dominant issue in the closing month of the campaign.

In his victory speech last night, Gilmore put the legislature on notice that he would "immediately move to eliminate the personal property tax on cars and trucks."

Gilmore, 48, the son of a Safeway grocery store manager, stepped down as attorney general in June to devote full time to campaigning.

On a conciliatory note last night, he said that "the day is past" for pitting one region or race in Virginia against another.

"Everyone has a seat at the table in the future of this state," he said, to cheers from supporters at a Richmond hotel.

The national Republican Party dumped more than $3 million into the off-year contests, far outspending the debt-ridden Democrats. In Virginia, $1 million in last-minute Republican money was directed primarily toward the lieutenant governor and attorney general contests, in an attempt to produce a first-ever GOP sweep in the state.

The GOP tide in Virginia represented a victory for religious conservatives, who strongly backed Gilmore and state Sen. Mark L. Earley of Chesapeake, who won the race for attorney general.

"Mission accomplished," declared Christian Coalition Director Randy Tate in an election-night statement.

Pub Date: 11/05/97

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