- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

While off-year elections tend to be over-interpreted when it comes to political issues of national significance, one thing seems quite clear from Tuesday’s elections: Efforts by the Democratic Party to hold onto governorships by blaming the Bush administration for whatever goes wrong in their individual states simply aren’t working.

Since Oct. 7, Republicans have wrested three governorships from the Democrats — in California, Mississippi and Kentucky. Republicans now control 29 of the nation’s 50 governorships, in states with 60 percent of the country’s population. The Democrats contend that the outcomes reflect a dissatisfaction with incumbents which could foreshadow the outcome of next year’s presidential race. But Republicans note that in each of these races, the Democrats tried to discredit Republican challengers by linking them to President Bush and problems in Washington. In each case, they failed.

To be sure, in both Mississippi and Kentucky, there were other factors at work.

In Kentucky, for example, voters were clearly fed up with a series of scandals in Frankfort, where Democrats had controlled the governorship for 32 years. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican member of Congress, succeeded in tying the Democratic standard-bearer, Attorney General Ben Chandler, to outgoing Democratic Gov. Paul Patton, who was dogged by an extramarital affair and multiple criminal investigations in the state’s transportation agency. But Mr. Fletcher also ran a hard-hitting, issue-oriented campaign, emphasizing his opposition to state tax increases and his support for Mr. Bush’s tax cuts. Although Mr. Chandler tried to portray himself as a conservative as well, Mr. Fletcher was successful in linking him to the national Democratic Party.

In Mississippi, former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour defeated the Democratic incumbent, Ronnie Musgrove, by a 53 percent to 45 percent margin. Mr. Musgrove attempted to link Mr. Barbour to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which he blamed for the loss of thousands of blue-collar jobs in Mississippi.

Mr. Barbour, by contrast, embraced the national Republican Party and was able to bring Mr. Bush and Vice President Cheney into the state to campaign for him. In many ways, the outcome in Mississippi was a testament to the political skills of Mr. Barbour. For many years, one of the shrewdest backroom political strategists, Mr. Barbour has shown himself to be a formidable candidate in his own right.

In Virginia, most Democratic gains occurred in Northern Virginia, particularly in Fairfax County, where voters’ anti-tax fervor (as reflected in last year’s defeat of the sales tax referendum) ebbed, and concern about maintaining high-quality government services prevailed. Still, it would be a serious mistake for Gov. Mark Warner to interpret the outcome as a mandate for his efforts to increase taxes. Widely rumored to be challenging Sen. George Allen in 2006, he now is emphasizing his opposition to Mr. Allen’s efforts to preserve the national moratorium on Internet taxes. Mr. Warner pursues this course of action at his political peril.

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