Republican officials put out an early, unusually defensive press release yesterday to play down the two gubernatorial losses they had expected in New Jersey and Virginia.
The Republican National Committee said that the two contests had little or nothing to do with national issues that will determine the outcome of next year’s midterm elections.
More than six hours before the polls closed, RNC’s chief spokesman, Trent Duffy, sent out a memoradum to the news media, titled “Factors in N.J. and Va. Governor’s Races,” saying that “Both the Virginia and New Jersey races were decided by local circumstances.”
There were two big factors that undercut the GOP’s two gubernatorial candidates, Mr. Duffy said. They “were outspent by 3 or 4 to 1” and the September 11 terrorist attacks “froze both races when Democrats were in the lead. Republicans were never able to get their message out.”
Other Republican officials made similar arguments, pointing out that Republican Mark L. Earley in Virginia and Republican Bret D. Schundler in New Jersey had bruising party primaries, while their respective Democratic opponents, Mark R. Warner and James E. McGreevey, were unopposed in their party and had been campaigning for the past four years.
“There is not a whole lot of momentum to be taken out of these races. We are at war and that is where the voters’ attention has been focused. We have become somewhat of a sidestage rather than center stage,” said Clinton Key, executive director of the Republican Governors Association.
But Democratic officials last night, crowing over their twin victories, saw a larger, long-term political trend in the results. These were signals that their party was making a comeback, especially in the South, they said. If they could win in a conservative Republican state like Virginia where the GOP holds all of the top state elective posts and a majority of the congressional delegation, their chances in next year’s elections were vastly improved.
“Victories in New Jersey and Virginia will give a tremendous boost to our fund raising, candidate recruitment and grass-roots organizing for 2002,” said Dan Pfeiffer, chief spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association.
“It gives us some good indicators for 2002, especially in Virginia because we have a number of southern races in the 2002 cycle, and we have a big Senate race in New Jersey,” said Tovah Ravitz, communciations director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
It is difficult if not impossible to find any political significance in the off-year elections that involve only a couple of governorships, dozens of mayoralty races and state legislative races.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe tried to turn the races into “a referendum on the Republican Party and its stale ideas,” though he emphasized that “this is not a referendum on President Bush.”
Mr. Bush, whose public approval ratings are running in the high 80s, did not campaign for either Republican candidate, deciding to avoid political appearances while he focuses on the war against terrorism.
Other factors that had nothing to do with national politics, it seemed, produced yesterday’s results.
In New Jersey, which has been trending Democratic for the past decade, Mr. Schundler a tax-cutting, pro-life conservative was running far behind from the beginning of his campaign and never caught up.
In Virginia, Mr. Warner was not only helped by his personal fortune as a venture capitalist, but defined himself as a conservative and sometimes favorably quoted Mr. Bush on taxes. A top Republican official said yesterday that the reason for Mr. Earley’s defeat was that he “did not have a message” to attract voters.
Still, Republicans enter next year’s election cycle with a lot of advantages. The GOP controls 29 governorship, including all of the major electoral states except California, and half the legislative chambers. They have a six-seat majority in the House and are expected to pick up anywhere from five to 10 seats under redistricting, and are one seat shy of retaking control of the Senate.
There will be 36 governors races at stake next year, 23 of them held by Republicans, 11 by the Democrats and two by independents.
There will also be 34 Senate seats up for grabs, with both parties having a strong chance to win control of that chamber. “While the Republicans have to defeat 20 seats to the Democrats’ 14 seats, each of the two parties has a half dozen seats at significant risk,” said elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg.