Va., N.J. elections mean a lot -- or not

November 05, 2001|By Jules Witcover

FAIRFAX, Va. --- The only two elections for governor tomorrow, here in Virginia and in New Jersey, are either bellwethers for the 2002 congressional and 2004 presidential races or merely local contests with no national significance.

It depends on whether you think your party's candidates are going to win or lose.

Although both seats are now held by Republicans, this time it's the Democrats, comfortably ahead in the polls in both states, who are saying the results will set the stage for Democratic control of Congress next year and the presidency beyond.

The Republicans correspondingly are low-balling the importance of the Virginia and New Jersey races.

Historically, these two gubernatorial contests the year after a presidential election have been watched closely as harbingers of each major party's prospects for the next one and for the congressional elections a year hence.

But as with everything else in the post-Sept. 11 world, these campaigns seem to have shrunk in significance as the country grieves over the events of that day and worries about anthrax threats and possible attacks to come.

Speaking to a lunchtime crowd of George Mason University students in the school's food court here the other day, Democrat Mark Warner, who has spent more than $4 million of his own money against former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, made only passing mention of Sept. 11.

He spoke of his priorities, including "public safety in light of what happened on Sept. 11," and briefly cited the endorsements he has received from firefighters and police organizations in the state.

But Mr. Warner's efforts, and Mr. Earley's as well, to pump urgency into the election have had to swim upstream against the somber national news and mood.

Party functionaries on both sides acknowledge that the terrorist attacks, while not a significant part of the gubernatorial debate, have taken a notable bite out of the campaigns by freezing them in place for important weeks after Sept. 11.

That fact has worked to the advantage of the frontrunners, Mr. Warner with a big money advantage over Mr. Earley in Virginia and fellow Democrat Jim McGreevey, opposing former Jersey City Republican Mayor Bret Schundler in New Jersey.

In both states, the Republican nominees also had to devote critical time trying to heal internal Republican breaches that still cling. So it's not surprising that Republican strategists are denying any national significance in the two gubernatorial contests.

One of these strategists argues that the issues in both Virginia and New Jersey "are not nationalizing issues" but local concerns like taxes and education that are blurred this fall in the general public distraction over terrorism.

But it is obvious that such GOP strategists are not eager to read national relevance into races in which their nominees are significantly behind in the polls.

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Maria Cardona, by contrast, is all too willing to claim the Virginia and New Jersey contests as signals of a brighter Democratic future, even before the voters have spoken.

She lists as the four top 2001 elections in the country the race for mayor in Los Angeles, already won by Democrat Jim Hahn; for mayor in New York, where Democrat Mark Green is the overwhelming favorite; and the two gubernatorial elections.

The history of Virginia and New Jersey as off-year bellwethers is mixed. In 1993, the Democrats lost both governorships and a year later were inundated nationally in the congressional Gingrich Revolution. In 1997, in the midst of President Bill Clinton's personal misconduct woes, they lost both seats again, but the party bounced back in the congressional elections of 1998 and Al Gore carried New Jersey in 2000.

If the two trailing Republican gubernatorial nominees should win, some will conclude that support for Mr. Bush in the current national crisis over terrorism somehow benefited them -- and will change the pre-election GOP tune that these two races have no national significance. And the Democrats will reverse themselves and deny it means anything. But such an outcome, nevertheless, would cast a pall over Democratic hopes for 2002 and 2004.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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