Monday, November 12, 2001

Political spin is one of this town’s highest art forms, but it soared to new levels of craftiness and cunning after last Tuesday’s off-year elections.

The Democrats won solid victories in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races, ending eight years of Republican rule in Trenton and Richmond. But the real story behind their victories, one that the national news media missed, is not so much that the Democrats won, but how they won.

Listening to Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe’s spin on the elections, you would think Democrats won those states by running on traditional Democratic orthodoxy.

The results of last Tuesday’s elections was “a repudiation of the stale ideas of the Republican Party,” Mr. McAuliffe said. I don’t think so.

Democrats James McGreevey in New Jersey and Mark Warner in Virginia crushed their conservative Republican rivals by running, not as liberal Democrats, but slightly to the right of center on taxes, spending and balanced budgets. In other words, they won by taking traditional Republican positions on these and other issues that Mr. McAuliffe calls “stale ideas.”

In his last debate with Republican tax-cutter Bret Schundler, Mr. McGreevey said that he regretted supporting the onerous tax increases enacted by former N.J. Gov. James Florio, who remains a hero in bash-the-rich liberal circles. You could almost see James Carville, a Florio campaign adviser, “cringing over that statement,” said tax-cut crusader Stephen Moore. Mr. Moore’s Club for Growth heavily financed Mr. Schundler’s bid.

In fact, Mr. McGreevey’s campaign was based on his opposition to future tax increases, which he said would be the kiss of death for the state’s recessionary economy. Moreover, he repeatedly criticized former Republican Gov. Christie Todd Whitman for budget mismanagement and excessive spending, criticisms that many Republican conservatives had leveled at her, too.

Although Mark Warner supported letting Northern Virginia vote on a referendum on whether to raise its sales tax for schools and transportation needs, he ran as a budget-balancer who repeatedly promised he would not raise taxes or endanger the state’s fiscal health through increased debt and deficit spending.

Notably, Mr. Warner ran as a supporter of Republican Gov. James Gilmore’s car tax cut, the flagship issue of Mr. Gilmore’s governorship. Mr. Warner also criticized Mr. Gilmore for mismanaging the budget. Mr. Gilmore’s record on spending has scored poorly on conservative report cards.

“Warner ran on pro-gun issues, supported parental notification on abortion and ran as a fiscal conservative. The Democrats can’t be happy that he ran away from their national platform,” said Mr. Gilmore, who also chairs the Republican National Committee.

The GOP’s staunchest conservative tax-cutters agreed that both Mr. McGreevey and Mr. Warner did not sound or run like Democrats in the tradition of Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle or Teddy Kennedy. They ran as so-called New Democrats.

“For the Republican Party, this was a lousy election. For the pro-growth, fiscal conservative movement, this was not a repudiation of the anti-tax message but a validation of it by the Democrats,” Mr. Moore told me.

“Democrats won by simply co-opting our message on taxes because the political center of gravity on tax issues has shifted to the right,” he said.

There were other reasons why Republicans lost these two races. Mr. McGreevey and Mr. Warner have been running for four years, and their opponents were not as well known and ran underfinanced campaigns. Mr. Warner’s Republican opponent, Mark Early, did not have a coherent, compelling campaign message. He was unable to pin the tax-raiser label on his rival.

Republicans consoled themselves with Michael Bloomberg’s come-from-behind victory over liberal Democrat Mark Green in New York. A neophyte who has never run for public office, Mr. Bloomberg spent $55 million from his vast news-empire fortune.

In the end, though, it was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s late-but-golden endorsement that shot up Mr. Bloomberg’s long-lagging polls in a city where the Democrats outnumber Republicans by better than 5 to 1. Battered by the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, stalwart New Yorkers wanted the next best thing to another Giuliani term. His endorsement promised them that.

Democrats promoted Mr. Bloomberg’s liberal Democratic past and his late switch to the GOP. “We even elected a Democrat in New York City,” Mr. McAuliffe said. But before getting Rudy’s official blessing, Mr. Bloomberg made it clear he would continue to be just as tough on crime and just as fiscally conservative as Mr. Giuliani, who is a committed tax-cutter.

Does all of this contain the seeds of a Democratic victory in next year’s midterm elections? Hardly. The 2002 races are going to be a clean slate that will be decided by events in the war on terrorism and whether the economy turns upward sooner rather than later.

Still, there is a lesson here for Republicans in the coming campaigns. They better find a way to counter their opponents’ right-of-center message on taxes and spending that led to last week’s Democratic victories, or they could be in deep trouble next November.

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