WASHINGTON -- While Republican spinners publicly dismiss setbacks in Tuesday's scattered off-year elections as isolated mishaps, their leaders truly are filled with fear and loathing about next year. Anticipated Democratic defeats in New Jersey and Virginia, though hardly national barometers, expose weaknesses in the GOP that could lead to catastrophe in 2002.
Defeats in the two states, especially New Jersey, revealed an ideologically and culturally divided party that is not ready for next year's tests. The performance by the Republican National Committee (RNC) can most charitably be described as too little, too late. George W. Bush, basking in post-Sept. 11 popularity, ignored the off-year elections (much as he abjured campaigning for legislative candidates as governor of Texas).
Democrats cannot claim to have found their voice, considering the way their candidates for governor were elected. Mark Warner in Virginia impersonated a Republican, and Jim McGreevey in New Jersey proved once again that negative campaigning really works. Nevertheless, these shortcomings afford little solace for Republicans. Nor should the GOP celebrate the victory in New York City of Michael Bloomberg, a liberal Democrat who became a Republican this year as the only way to get on the mayoral ticket.
From the Republican standpoint, conditions in 2002 may be more hazardous than in 2001. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the Democratic Party's master strategist, is delaying until next year congressional consideration of issues that make Republicans uncomfortable: HMO regulation, prescription drug subsidies and minimum wage increases. The GOP's nightmare scenario would extend both the economic recession and war in Afghanistan. The great Republican surge of 1994 may finally have run its course.
Moreover, Republicans this year sought their old designation as the stupid party. Acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco and the party's other pillars in New Jersey, who mix private business with politics, openly undermined Bret Schundler's campaign. They thought they could keep ex-Jersey City reformist Mayor Schundler out of Trenton (and be comfortable with Democratic good old boy McGreevey) and retain their legislative majorities. Instead, Republicans lost control of both houses, as Schundler was swamped.
Fratricide among Virginia Republicans was less obvious than in New Jersey but still poisonous. Bad feelings were palpable between term-limited Gov. Jim Gilmore (the Republican national chairman) and candidate Mark Earley. RNC staffers grumbled at the Earley campaign's inability to consolidate support from pro-life and pro-gun voters and its failure to plug into Gilmore's high approval rating.
Neither Schundler's nor Earley's campaign was happy about the level of assistance from Washington. The RNC's final week $2 million infusion of television spending into New Jersey ($1 million in generic Republican ads, $1 million in anti-McGreevey ads) had virtually no impact on the solid double-digit lead built by the Democrat. Why, asks Schundler's campaign, did the money arrive so late?
Although President Bush's news spinners are working overtime to claim that his absence from both states did not affect either race for governor, he was desperately wanted in both states. Nor did it help when White House aides told reporters that the president did not want to campaign for "losers."
Conservative activists were particularly aggravated that Bush found time Oct. 30 to appear with the least loyal of Republican House members, Rep. Connie Morella, in her suburban Maryland district while unwilling to cross the Potomac to help Earley. A little less than a year ago, Morella signaled she probably would vote for Al Gore if the disputed presidential election reached the House of Representatives.
What lessens the significance of Tuesday's voting and could make the results reversible next year is Democratic failure to sound a coherent theme. Nouveau Republican Bloomberg in New York City sounded more like an old-fashioned Democrat than the two winners for governor, who embraced rather than overpowered the Republican tax issue. Warner did not repeat the blunder by the 1997 Virginia Democratic candidate in opposing tax cuts. Warner and McGreevey both committed themselves not to increase taxes.
That Democrats are learning how not to destroy themselves is no reason for Republican satisfaction. Questions abound about 2002, but one heads the list. Will fighting the war against terrorism prevent George W. Bush from fighting for his party's control of Congress?