Posted on September 27, 1993 in Washington Watch
This week, press attention in the U.S. is focused on two legislative fights that President Clinton must win this year: reform of the nation’s health care system, and passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Both measures will meet stiff opposition—health care reform because of its cost and complexity, and NAFTA because of strong opposition from labor unions, environmentalists and isolationists.
But there are other equally critical votes that the Democratic President must win this November. In gubernatorial elections in the states of New Jersey and Virginia, and in the Mayor’s race in New York City, Democrats are receiving strong challenges from Republican candidates. If Republicans win these races, the President’s ability to command loyalty from some Democratic Congressmen will be weakened, making it more difficult for him to win their votes on the controversial health care and NAFTA bills.
Already this year, Republicans have won a number of key elections in areas where Democrats have traditionally held power. A Republican won a special election in Texas to fill the Senate seat vacated by long-time Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentson (who resigned to become Secretary of the Treasury). And in mayoral races in Jersey City, New Jersey and Los Angeles, California, Republicans took control of city governments where Democrats had held power for more than twenty years.
So far this year, Republicans have won 28 of 42 special elections to fill vacant state legislative seats. Prior to this year, only 13 of these 42 seats were held by Republicans, making for a net gain of 15 seats for the Republicans! This is having an effect on Clinton’s ability to win support from Democrats in Congress.
This fear of losing races to Republicans has caused real nervousness among many Democrats, most particularly among those who won close elections in 1992. For example, a large majority of those Democrats who voted against the President’s budget bill this year came from districts where they faced strong Republican challengers. These Democrats are still looking over their shoulders, fearful of making any unpopular votes that could cost them support in the 1994 elections.
So while the President is focused on winning passage of his legislation in Washington and dealing with international crises in Russia, Bosnia and Somalia, he must also give attention to helping Democrats win local races this year.
The New Jersey Governor’s race is especially important to Clinton. The incumbent, Democrat Jim Florio, is running for reelection against Republican woman Christie Todd Whitman. Whitman came extremely close to upsetting New Jersey’s popular Democratic Senator Bill Bradley in 1990, though her campaign was focused more against Governor Florio’s tax increase of 1989 than it was against Bradley. This time she is taking Florio on directly, and she is giving him all the challenge he can handle.
Florio’s race parallel’s Clinton’s potential 1996 reelection campaign in several ways. After winning in 1989 he immediately passed a large tax increase package in an effort to raise enough new revenues to balance the state’s budget while still providing needed social services. Those tax increases sparked huge protests across the state, and set the stage for the most dramatic event of the 1990 elections—the Republicans wresting control of both houses of the state legislature away from the Democrats for the first time in recent memory. And, as mentioned above, the tax increases also fueled Whitman’s challenge to Bradley. In fact, had Bradley lost his race, the reason would have been voter anger with Florio’s tax increase.
Three years later, Whitman’s challenge to the Democratic Governor is focusing once again on the issues of taxes versus social spending.
Whitman started the race strongly. Early polls actually showed her leading over Florio by a wide margin. But after announcing her plans, if elected, to make major tax cuts and pay for them with corresponding cuts in social services, some of her support has diminished. Whitman has also received negative press attention for her personal tax problems, which cost her additional support. Now most polls show the two running almost even, with Florio slightly in the lead.
This is good news for Clinton because the election does have clear national implications. Florio’s campaign manager is James Carville, who managed Clinton’s 1992 victory. Whitman’s campaign is being run by Ed Rollins, who ran Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign. And Republican Senator Bob Dole, a potential 1996 challenger to Clinton, came to New Jersey to campaign for Whitman; and his visit raised $1.9 million for her campaign.
Florio and Whitman are, in effect, surrogates for national Democrats and national Republicans. And the race stands to gain the status of a voter referendum on whether or not a Democratic candidate who promised not to raise taxes, and then did, can be forgiven. Are voters, in the end, willing to pay more for fiscal responsibility and social services?
These are likely to be issues facing the Democratic Congressmen who voted for Clinton’s budget when they face voters in 1994—and the issues Clinton will face if he runs for reelection in 1996.
If Florio loses, many Democratic Congressmen will, no doubt, be less willing to support Clinton’s initiatives during the next year.
Democrats face an even stronger and potentially more devastating challenge in Virginia, where Mary Sue Terry, the state’s Attorney general, is running for Governor against former Republican Congressman George Allen. Terry started out leading in the polls by a wide margin. By the end of August the gap had closed to just 6%, and in early September Allen went ahead in the polls 39% to 38%. He has retained this small lead ever since. This is surprising in a state where Democrats have held the state house for the last generation and where they enjoy a large majority in voter registration.
National Republicans are putting a great deal of emphasis on this race. Dole, who called this race “a national referendum on Clinton,” raised $1 million for Allen’s campaign. And perhaps more importantly, his “referendum” line got picked up by many political pundits, and the evaporation of Terry’s lead has been explained as a measure of public dissatisfaction with Clinton’s policies. Should Allen win the race, Dole or some other Republican will undoubtedly try to carry the standard of Allen’s victory against Clinton in 1996.
And in New York City, another area where Democrats have traditionally held power, the Democratic Mayor, David Dinkins, is in danger of losing to Republican challenger Rudolph Giuliani.
Dinkins beat Giuliani in 1989, but a great deal has changed since then.
Dinkins’ Administration has been hit by a number of scandals, calling into question his effectiveness.
The Democratic coalition that elected Dinkins has also been weakened. The liberal, African American, Latino Americans and Jewish American coalition that elected him has been frayed by internal tension and conflicting interests.
Jewish Americans have repeatedly accused Dinkins of providing special favors to New York City’s African Americans. On a weekly basis, New York’s Jewish newspapers challenge the Dinkins Administration’s decision to award contracts and jobs to African Americans.
The fallout from the riots in Crown Heights, which pitted the Jewish community against the African American community hit Dinkins quite hard. He was accused by Jewish leaders of taking the side of African Americans during the riots and not providing enough police protection for the Jewish community; and a recently released special commission’s report on the riots supported that charge. This is just the latest in a series of incidents which have hurt the mayor among in the Jewish American community.
Recent polls show Dinkins and Giuliani almost even—but with Dinkins receiving less than 25% of the Jewish vote (an all-time low for a Democratic candidate in New York City). Dinkins is also losing the white vote by almost 3-1 and is only even with Giuliani among Latino voters (another group that has been displeased with his Administration). In fact, if it were not for the 87% to 4% margin he receives among African American voters, he would not even be a contender in this race.
This month, President Clinton will go to New York City to campaign for Dinkins at a $1,000 per plate fundraising dinner. In separate visits, Vice President Gore and First Lady Hillary Clinton and Mrs. Gore, and many of the Administration’s cabinet officers will also be going to New York to help the Democratic Mayor return to his post. Significant attention is paid to winning back at least enough of the Jewish voters to neutralize the affect this powerful voting bloc in the election. It is important to note that while African American voters exceed Jewish voters (35% to 30%, respectively, of all potential voters in the city), the Jewish voters voter turnout is traditionally larger in most local elections.
Despite the difficulty encountered in passing his budget and the host of problems that plagued the first few months of his Administration, Clinton is doing a much better job of defining issues and winning public confidence for his presidency.
His approval ratings are up to 52% and a majority of Americans are giving him even higher marks for his health care reform proposals. The White House staff is working more smoothly with the national press than it was in the first months, and the Administration is, correspondingly, receiving more favorable press coverage than it did earlier this year.
The signing of the Israel-PLO accord and the signing of the President’s National Service Program gave Clinton a boost over the last two weeks. But to maintain this momentum, he must keep on winning.
And now, in addition to winning passage of his very challenging legislative proposals, he must also help three vulnerable Democrats win the local races.
Victory or defeat in these races will be viewed as:
Â· tests of the President’s strength and, fairly or not, of voter confidence in his leadership;
Â· early warning signs of the public mood in advance of the November 1994 elections when all 435 members of the House of representatives and one-third of the members of the Senate will face reelection;
Â· determining factors as to whether or not Democratic Congressmen and Senators will who expect strong challenges will support the President’s legislation in Congress; and
Â· a very early test for the President’s own reelection chances in 1996.
While nothing is written in stone, these races will be important tests for President Clinton. Keep your eyes on Virginia, New Jersey and New York City this November.
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