In the wake of Tuesday’s elections, which saw Democrats recapture governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, some pundits seek to characterize the results as a major triumph for the party of Bill Clinton and the Democratic National Committee’s moneybag-in-chief, Terry McAuliffe and a sign of trouble for President Bush and the Republicans. But the Democrats are deluding themselves if they seek to interpret the elections as a repudiation of Mr. Bush or some sort of “mandate” for classic high-tax, big government liberalism.
In Virginia, for example, Republicans were in some ways victims of their own extraordinary success in reforming state government over the past eight years under Govs. George Allen and James Gilmore. During the Allen-Gilmore era, Republican administrations pushed and prodded the Democrat-controlled General Assembly into reforming welfare, phasing out the oppressive car tax, toughening penalties for juvenile crime, abolishing parole for dangerous felons and embarking on a new prison construction program to keep such criminals behind bars. No surprise, crime rates in the Old Dominion plummeted as a result. Electing another Republican governor to roll back the Leviathan in Richmond and hector the legislature into taking a tougher position on crime has become much less important to voters than it was during the 1990s.
Lost in the Democrats’ self-congratulation about winning back the governorship was the disastrous outcome for the party in the race for control of the General Assembly: Democrats, who had hoped Mr. Warner’s coattails would help them in the battle for control of the House of Delegates, lost 12 seats. When election night began, the Republicans held 52 seats, the Democrats 46 and Independents (both of whom caucused with the Republicans) held two. By Wednesday afternoon, the Republicans held 64 seats; the Democrats were left with 34. There will be two independents, both of whom are expected to caucus with the GOP. The big winner in the House races is a staunch conservative: House Speaker Vance Wilkins, whose party will command a near-veto-proof majority in that chamber. Mr. Warner showed that he understands the new order, telephoning prominent Republicans like veteran Del. Vincent Callahan, co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “He’s going to have to be very bipartisan in what he wants to get done,” Mr. Callahan said bluntly.
When he chaired the state Democratic party in the mid-1990s, however, Mr. Warner was anything but bipartisan. Instead, he was harshly critical of Republican policies, particularly on welfare reform and crime. In this year’s gubernatorial campaign, Mr. Warner embraced such policies and suggested that he had grown increasingly conservative with age. Mr. Warner openly courted the National Rifle Association and managed to persuade the NRA not to endorse his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Mark Earley. When his Democratic ticket mates, Lt.-Gov.-elect Tim Kaine and Attorney General nominee Donald McEachin (who lost his race by 24 percentage points) took positions questioning the death penalty and gun rights, Mr. Warner moved quickly to distance himself from their views. Mr. Warner did everything possible to obfuscate his support for tax increases. He emphasized that (at least for the time being) he opposes raising taxes. Mr. Warner always had an answer when Mr. Earley and the Republicans brought up inconvenient facts about taxes. I’m a “fiscal conservative,” he would say. Now, a much-strengthened Republican majority in the General Assembly will give him plenty of chances to prove it.
In New Jersey, by contrast, the Democratic Party’s retaking of the governor’s mansion came as little surprise. Liberal Democratic candidate Jim McGreevey (who came within a whisker of beating the Republican governor, Christine Todd Whitman, four years ago) defeated conservative Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler by a 56-42 margin. Democrats also won a majority in the State Assembly and gained a 20-20 split in the Senate. Mr. McGreevey successfully trashed Mr. Schundler as an “extremist” for his pro-life and pro-Second Amendment views. Mr. Schundler, for his part, forced Mr. McGreevey to repudiate his support for the very unpopular tax increase pushed through 11 years ago by Democratic Gov. James Florio. To be sure, unlike Virginia, New Jersey has no tradition of electing conservatives like Mr. Schundler statewide.
To win, the Democrats had to run like Republicans. Smarting from Tuesday’s results, Republicans can nevertheless take some comfort in that fact.