Deep GOP Pockets Could Save Two Key Races

Full coffers may help shaky Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia.

For the politics-weary, this is your year. Only two states, New Jersey and Virginia, are electing governors this fall, and so far the races remain focused on local issues - taxes and education.

But recent developments have given national Democrats something to grab onto: an outside chance of winning both statehouses, currently occupied by popular Republican incumbents.

Republicans now hold 32 governor's offices, Democrats hold 17, and an independent governs one. Whichever party wins each race, the balance won't change - Republicans will still dominate the corps of state leaders viewed as an important breeding ground for policy ideas and national political talent.

But if one party were to win both races, "it might be a harbinger for 1998," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

The biggest coup would be the defeat of New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a popular Republican in a state that leans Democratic. She has stumbled lately over state finances as her much-heralded tax cuts have caused a short-fall in state pension funds. Governor Whitman was also slapped on the wrist by the state Supreme Court for not providing enough money for poor schools.

Volvo politician

In Virginia, another popular Republican, Gov. George Allen, is limited by law to one term, and his anointed successor, state Attorney General James Gilmore III, so far hasn't fired the imagination. His opponent, Lt. Gov. Don Beyer, a Democrat, is more charismatic and better-known statewide both as a politician and as owner of a successful Volvo dealership in northern Virginia.

Political handicappers call the Virginia race a toss-up and give Whitman the edge in New Jersey, where three young male Democratic politicians are vying for their party's nomination.

But if the Democrats really do have a chance to take both races, financial resources could prove to be their undoing. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is embroiled in financial problems stemming from questionable fund-raising practices, and may be no match for the Republican National Committee (RNC). RNC spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick won't say how much "soft money" would be made available for general Republican party-building activities this fall, but he describes the party's coffers as "healthy."

The Democrats' gubernatorial candidates "could be the first real victims of the DNC's fund-raising problems," says Professor Sabato. With only two governors' races this fall, the Republicans could sink a lot into both. Reports indicate the national Republicans have already pledged $1 million to Mr. Gilmore.

The Virginia race will be expensive. Both candidates expect to raise $8 million apiece; both are already running television ads. Another $1 million or more from the national GOP may give Gilmore an edge, says Sabato.

New Jersey, too, will surely be an expensive race, where the state's dominant media markets - New York City and Philadelphia - are pricey. So it will be difficult for Whitman's Democratic challenger to build name recognition.

But whereas a month ago Whitman looked unbeatable, she now has some vulnerable areas. Still, she looms large as the nation's only female governor, and as a standard-bearer for the moderate wing of the Republican Party, which preaches fiscal conservatism and social liberalism on issues such as abortion. Her reelection in November would keep her name alive as a possible candidate for national office in 2000.

Incumbent advantage

"If the Democrats picked her off, it would be a momentary positive blip," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. But he sees the odds as long.

In both New Jersey and Virginia, booming economies benefit the incumbent party. In the end, what worked for President Clinton last November may help Republicans keep their edge in statehouses this November.

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