Share this article

print logo


Eight years ago, when the Republicans won governorships in New Jersey and Virginia and mayoral races in New York City and Los Angeles, the party's national chairman, Haley Barbour, said the sweep of the four top off-year contests was a sign that voters had turned decisively against the Democrats after less than a year of the Clinton presidency.

A year later, when the 1994 midterm election gave the GOP control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, Barbour looked like a prophet. But Clinton was re-elected handily in 1996, and Republicans have lost strength in the House and Senate in every election since 1994.

This history would make anyone cautious about reading too much into next Tuesday's election results - even if the polls are correct and Democrats duplicate the 1993 Republican feat by sweeping all four of those races.

No one sensibly could regard such a result as a personal repudiation of President Bush, who is enjoying, at least for now, a surge of patriotic support as commander in chief of the war against terrorism.

But the potential Democratic victories do indicate a vulnerability that the GOP would be foolish to ignore, as it gears up for the more important contests a year from now.

The common thread in the four races is the inability of the Republican Party to come up with candidates who could match the personal appeal and broad coalition-building strength of the GOP incumbents they are seeking to succeed. And that is a weakness that could spell serious trouble for the president's party if it continues into next year.

In Los Angeles, the Republicans were unable even to qualify the handpicked successor of term-limited Mayor Richard Riordan for last spring's mayoral runoff. The top two vote-getters in the first primary for the nominally nonpartisan office were Democrats Jim Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa, and Hahn already has replaced Riordan at the helm of the nation's largest city.

Also facing term limits, New York City's Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani groomed no one to take over, so the GOP nomination went to party-crasher Michael Bloomberg, a media mogul who has committed so many gaffes that Democrat Mark Green is almost a cinch to win.

In New Jersey, where two-term Gov. Christine Todd Whitman was recruited by Bush to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Bret Schundler, the former mayor of Jersey City, beat Whitman's and the party establishment's favorite in the GOP primary, but has struggled to bring Republicans together against Democrat Jim McGreevey.

And in Virginia, where Gov. Jim Gilmore, who doubles as chairman of the Republican National Committee, is limited to one term, Republican former state Attorney General Mark Earley has been trailing Democratic businessman Mark Warner since the start of the race. In all four contests, the Democrats nominated candidates with widespread name recognition from previous campaigns. And in the two gubernatorial contests, the GOP chose challengers whose core supporters came from anti-abortion and religious right groups whose blessing can be the kiss of death to suburban independents.

This ideological narrowing could be worrisome for Republicans next year - especially in the 22 governors' races where they now are in power. In almost half those contests, the Republicans who won last time are stepping down or are barred from running again. And in most of the contests, the prospective Republican candidates look like Schundler and Earley - people with lesser reputations and probably narrower constituencies than the governors they are trying to replace.

That is notably the case in Michigan and Pennsylvania, two key presidential battlegrounds, where the Democrats have heavyweight contenders running. And it may well prove to be true in Texas and Wisconsin, where two former lieutenant governors, Rick Perry and Scott McCallum, are still trying to emerge from the large shadows cast by their predecessors - President Bush and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

In a number of states, the leading candidates or strong contenders for the Republican nominations may also resemble Schundler and Earley in being so far right that they leave much of the independent electorate open to the Democrats.

All this makes next Tuesday's voting, especially the two governors' races, very much worth watching.

Washington Post Writers Group

There are no comments - be the first to comment