Democratic wins Tuesday prove nothing, experts say

Current events, attitudes make it impossible to predict 2002 elections

November 08, 2001|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The clearest message from this week's election results: Stay tuned.

Democrats came out ahead in Tuesday's voting by picking up governorships in Virginia and New Jersey for the first time since the 1980s, despite being overshadowed by Republican billionaire Michael Bloomberg's surprise election as mayor of New York.

But campaign veterans, reflecting on an unusually volatile and uncertain political climate at home and overseas, play down the significance of the 2001 election as a trend-setter for the future.

"It means nothing," says Paul Maslin, a Democratic strategist in San Francisco whose clients include California Gov. Gray Davis, a candidate for re-election next year.

Maslin called the period heading into the 2002 election, when control of Congress and most governorships, including Maryland's, is up for grabs, "the most unpredictable" he has encountered.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres of Atlanta agreed that next year's candidates are entering uncharted territory.

"If anyone tells you they know how the elections [Tuesday] are going to affect the elections a year from now, they're just blowing smoke," Ayres said. "How many more terrorist attacks will occur in the next year? What will the military situation be in Afghanistan a year from now? Will the economy be in recession or recovery?

"The answers to those questions determine the electoral environment next year. And nobody has a clue what the answer to any one of those is at this point."

There were themes that ran through the results, reflecting old lessons of politics more than clues to which party has the 2002 edge.

The candidates who spent the most won. Internal divisions hurt the losers. A Republican who campaigned like a Democrat triumphed in Democratic territory (New York), while a Democrat who ran like a Republican won on Republican turf (Virginia).

Democratic officials boasted that this year's elections were proof of a Democratic rebound in swing suburban areas and demonstrated that President Bush's popularity won't rub off on other Republicans, despite his stratospheric poll ratings and overwhelming support for the war in Afghanistan.

"The truth is that the president has no coattails whatsoever," said Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "It doesn't matter whether he's getting 48 percent of the vote, as he was a year ago, or whether he's enjoying 90 percent popularity today."

McAuliffe added that while the nation is united behind Bush, the results prove that "voters truly trust Democrats to tackle major domestic policy challenges."

Bush, determined to maintain broad public backing for his war on terrorism, made no campaign appearances this fall, rejecting pleas for help from fellow Republicans. He did record get-out-the-vote messages that were telephoned to thousands of voters and signed letters that were mass-mailed by Republican candidates.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, asked whether Bush should have done more to aid GOP candidates, said "No." The elections, he added, did not deliver a national message but instead were a series of local contests "decided mostly by local factors."

In New York City, Bloomberg spent more than $50 million of his own money, a record for a municipal campaign. But it was a late endorsement by the incumbent Republican mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, that proved decisive in a way it never would have been before Sept. 11.

"That was the ballgame," said media consultant David Garth, a Bloomberg adviser. Bloomberg blitzed the airwaves with a Giuliani endorsement ad in the final days of the race, including multiple showings during the seventh game of the World Series, at a cost of roughly $100,000 each.

Giuliani's magic did not extend beyond the Hudson, however. The losing Republican gubernatorial candidates, Bret Schundler in New Jersey and Mark Earley in Virginia, both aired last-minute endorsement spots by the popular New York mayor, to no avail.

Democrats were quick to point out that Bloomberg is a recent convert to the Republican Party and recently said he still considers himself a liberal. The media magnate chairs the board of trustees at the Johns Hopkins University, to which he has contributed at least $100 million (and perhaps as much as $250 million).

Election Day polling suggested that Bloomberg's success as a businessman might have won him votes in a city that faces an enormous struggle to recover economically from the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Splits within the Democratic Party -- in particular the defection of Hispanic voters bitter over the recent primary runoff -- also hurt the loser, Mark Green.

Republican officials seemed almost stunned by Bloomberg's victory and uncertain about how to deal with their newest star.

Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, the Republican national chairman, who was badly hurt by his party's failure to retain his seat, referred initially to Bloomberg in a conference call with reporters as simply "the new mayor."

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