Today's Election Holds Clues To Future Direction of GOP

Close New Jersey race highlights the trouble that 'Whitman Republicans' are in.

On election day 1997, the big story boils down to one person: Christine Todd Whitman.

Will New Jersey's governor, a national symbol of moderate Republicanism, lose her seat to a Democratic upstart?

Even if Governor Whitman doesn't lose, the fact that she is struggling - recent polls show the race with Democrat James McGreevey at a statistical dead heat - demonstrates the woes of the GOP's moderate wing, even in the politically moderate Northeast.

Overall, though, today's elections are likely to bring good news to the Republican Party. Of the four major contests - the New Jersey and Virginia governor's races, the mayorship of New York, and an open New York congressional seat - all are currently held by Republicans. And the GOP appears headed for victory in at least three of them.

If the Republicans sweep, they are sure to claim a larger message from voters - that the Republican tide that began four years ago is alive and well. If the Democrats take even one of those races, they will claim the tide has broken. Democratic efforts to reclaim control of the House of Representatives - with only an 11-seat margin - will be emboldened.

But analysts caution against reading too much into so few races. "I don't see these as great barometers of '98," says Stu Rothenberg, editor of a political newsletter.

Four years ago, when the three big seats at stake - New Jersey, Virginia, and New York mayor - were all held by Democrats, the Republican sweep did signify a shift in mood that foreshadowed the Republican Revolution of 1994. But now, these races are being fought on decidedly local issues: the car tax in Virginia, auto insurance in New Jersey, bus and ferry fares in Staten Island.

With a generally solid economy, voters are contented. And they're likely to vote for the status quo. This makes Whitman's troubles all the more noteworthy.

If she were to lose, local issues would be partly to blame, analysts agree. "But it would also be a symptom of the fact that the Northeast has become the Democrats' base, and it's just very hard for Republicans to hold on," says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute here. Further, he says, "By the Republicans' standards, she's no Republican. She's doubly squeezed."

Shift on abortion?

For many Republicans, Whitman's strong support of abortion rights puts her beyond the pale. In fact, some conservative Republicans are fighting for her defeat today, and some intend to vote for one of the two independent candidates, a Libertarian and a Conservative, who are cutting deeply into Whitman's vote. Because New Jersey is a Democratic-leaning state, her base is shrinking.

If Whitman loses and James Gilmore, the GOP candidate in Virginia who is largely anti-abortion, wins, "it will show the tectonic plates on abortion are shifting," says Mr. Schneider.

In 1989, when the right to abortion appeared to be under serious threat, candidates who espoused strong views in favor of abortion rights got a boost from the issue. Democrats Jim Florio of New Jersey and Douglas Wilder of Virginia, both strongly pro-abortion rights, won their governor's races in 1989. Now, the abortion issue isn't working either for Whitman or for Donald Beyer, the Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia.

Whitman's veto of a bill to ban so-called "partial birth abortions" has put her outside the political mainstream, say political analysts. "It's a bridge too far," says Washington pundit Charles Cook.

The '97 elections also point to another important factor for next year: the role of money. While the national Democratic Party struggles under the weight of its $15 million campaign debt and legal bills for the fund-raising scandal, the Republicans have poured cash into today's races.

In Virginia, the GOP has given Mr. Gilmore more than $2 million versus the Democrats' $125,000 for Mr. Beyer. In New Jersey, the Republican National Committee has spent $760,000 for issue advocacy, while the Democratic National Committee has spent nothing. In the House race in Staten Island, the same pattern holds.

On the other side of the country, voters face ballot initiatives with hot-button issues that could fuel action elsewhere.

Suicide, guns, gay rights

In Oregon, one measure would repeal a 1994 initiative to legalize doctor-assisted suicide.

In Washington State, voters will tackle three tough issues: requiring handgun owners to get licenses and use trigger locks when transporting handguns; legalizing marijuana for medical uses; and protecting homosexuals from discrimination in the workplace and union membership. Prof. Mary Hanna at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., says the handgun measure will likely lose, the gay-rights measure will likely win, and the marijuana plan is too close to call.

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