Voters speak: Tax cuts don't equal victory

GOP's timed-tested platforms failed in New Jersey and Virginia, where governors' seats go to Democrats.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If this year's elections carried one theme, it may be this: Facing a wobbly economy and feeling uneasy about security, voters tended to pick candidates with a pragmatic, can-do approach over those with ideological tinges or complicating political baggage.

In many cases, this means they went with the familiar, voting for incumbent mayors in Boston, Cincinnati, and Charlotte, N.C. In New York, the endorsement of incumbent Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who couldn't run again, helped lift Republican Michael Bloomberg to victory.

In statewide races, where a broader swath of the electorate turned out, voters seemed to turn from Republicans' tax-cutting, smaller-government ideology. Amid rising trust in government, the GOP lost its two biggest contests - gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia.

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On a national level, 2001 hints that President Bush's record-setting popularity doesn't easily translate into a grand new Republican era. Still, with Americans looking to government as a problem-solver, Mr. Bush's small-but-active vision for government may position his party well for 2002 - even if his tax-cutting tendency doesn't.

In all, the emerging pragmatism hints that "voters are looking for some kind of reality check - some sense that the person they're putting in office can actually do the job," says Christopher Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University.

That seems particularly true in the New Jersey and Virginia governors races - though for different reasons.

In Virginia, Gov.-elect Mark Warner is a well-known quantity to Old Dominion's voters. The high-tech millionaire lost a 1996 US Senate race to Republican John Warner - and has been running for governor ever since. Though a Democrat, his nonpartisan approach and his strong get-out-the-vote effort helped him win in a largely Republican state.

Mr. Warner scored big political points with a pragmatic position of letting northern Virginia voters decide whether to raise taxes to fund new roads to ease traffic congestion.

Republican Mark Earley's objection to any transit-tax increase didn't help him. He was also weighed down by the perception that Republicans were responsible for the deadlocked state legislature.

In New Jersey, Democratic Gov.-elect Jim McGreevey narrowly lost the 1997 governor's race - and has been campaigning hard since. His platform includes promises of reform and accountability. But his winning strategy was to paint Republican Bret Schundler as a dogmatic conservative who supports gun ownership and restrictions on abortion. Mr. Schundler's tax-cutting message never took hold.

Indeed, these races hint that the Republican tax-cutting approach - which propelled the party to success in the 1990s - isn't as popular as it has been.

"The tax-cutting fervor isn't there," says David Axelrod, a Democratic consultant in Chicago. "There is a sense among people that these are hard times - and they're concerned about getting services."

Both gubernatorial winners face challenges. The weak economy is expected to result in big state budget shortfalls and higher demand for social services.

In New York, Mayor-elect Bloomberg was able to convince voters - with the help of Mr. Giuliani - that he is the pragmatist best able to handle the city's looming economic and rebuilding challenges. Democrat Mark Green's tough primary battle - and subsequent infighting in his party - contributed to his loss. Roughly half of the city's traditionally Democratic Hispanic voters defected to Bloomberg.

In other races:

• Cincinnati Mayor Charles Luken beat a relative unknown, Courtis Fuller, an African-American, despite criticism in the black community about Mr. Luken's handling of April riots sparked by the police shooting death of a black teen.

• Houston Mayor Lee Brown (R), like Mr. Earley in Virginia, argued that experienced leaders are needed at times of crisis. But amid traffic congestion and budget problems, that wasn't enough: He faces a runoff with Democratic Councilman Orlando Sanchez.

• In Cleveland, Mayor-elect Jane Campbell's consensus-building leadership style enabled her to create a coalition of business groups and labor leaders. She'll be the first woman to hold that office.

• Bucking the incumbent-friendly trend, Miami voters ousted Mayor Joe Carollo. A runoff between former Mayor Maurice Ferre and Manny Diaz, Elian Gonzalez' attorney, is set for Tuesday.

Because of the unusual circumstances around Sept. 11, this off-year election isn't much of a referendum on the part in power. Still, there are some inferences for Republicans.

For one, Bush's popularity isn't easily rubbing off on other Republicans. "If they thought that, nationally, they were going to go into 2002 with a very popular president" - and get big victories in House, Senate, and governors races - "this shows they're going to have to fight," says pollster John Zogby.

Second, Democratic wins in New Jersey and Virginia - and the failure of the antitax message to take hold - hint at a morphing view of government. "The public is feeling a lot more comfortable with the idea that solutions can come from government," says Dr. Arterton. This could help Bush, who has partly positioned himself as a moderate who sees a crucial role for government.

Yet some conservatives are more aligned with the slash-government ways of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "He's got a fight on his hands with his own conservative wing," says Arterton.

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