Posted on November 08, 1993 in Washington Watch

Republicans swept the three most hotly contested and high stakes elections of November, 1993, stirring a national debate over the impact of the Democratic defeats will have on the year-old Clinton Administration.

In Governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, and in the mayoral race in New York, Republicans ended long-time Democratic party rule. When added to the Republican victories earlier this year in the mayoral races on Los Angeles and Jersey City and the special Senate election in Texas, 1993 looks like a very bad year for Democratic incumbents.

Virginia
Twelve years of Democratic party control of the Governor’s mansion in Richmond ended with George Allen’s victory over Mary Sue Terry. But it might in all fairness be said that Republicans didn’t win this election so much as the Democrats self-destructed and lost it.

After more than a decade of fairly effective rule which lent the Democrats an air of well-deserved confidence, current Democratic Governor Doug Wilder and the Democratic Senator Chuck Robb revived their long-running feud just as Terry was starting her gubernatorial campaign. Their four-year long feud has been sufficiently harsh and public enough to tarnish the image of the entire state Democratic party.

This negative image added to the lackluster campaign run by Mary Sue Terry, which was devoid of substance and lacking in charisma and fire, and managed to change a 30 point Terry lead in the polls to an embarrassing 17 point defeat. Terry attempted to strike a conservative “tough on crime” stance, tying together support for a strong death penalty law and gun control in an effort to convince voters that she was not a “soft” woman candidate. But the image never took, and the voters ended up choosing the genuinely conservative George Allen.

Though Virginia borders the nation’s capital, Terry never invited President Bill Clinton to campaign with her because the Clinton’s approval rating in the state is very low; and she didn’t campaign with Governor Wilder until very late in the race. Allen, on the other hand, made use of as many major Republican leaders as he could. Even former President Richard Nixon participated in one of Allen’s fundraising events.

One last major factor in the Virginia election was the strong emergence of the organized conservative Christian Evangelical movement as a part of the mainstream of the Republican coalition. Since the rise of the Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson organizations a decade ago, the “religious right” (as they are frequently called) has been building a strong base in the Republican party. This year, in Virginia, they proved themselves a dominant factor in the Republican electoral victory. While one of their leaders lost his bid to become Lieutenant Governor, the movement demonstrated substantial political organization and muscle.

In the end, Terry’s campaign never served to distinguish her in the minds of the voters or separate her from the image of her party, and she went down to defeat at the hands of an electorate seized by an anti-incumbent mood. Moreover, it is now clear that the religious right will play a major role in Republican politics across the U.S. Their conservative social and political message present a clear challenge to liberal ideologies on issues like crime, abortion, education, welfare, and all policy areas where individual responsibility plays a role.

On foreign policy questions, the movement puts forth a less coherent message. For example, while their leaders were extremely anti-Soviet and fervently pro-Israel (since in their theology they believe that only when Israel conquers its enemies will the messiah return to save the “chosen”), the followers of the movement do not always agree on these issues. Nevertheless, the “religious right” has clearly become a force to be reckoned with because of its demonstrated ability to define an issues agenda and win elections.

New Jersey
The single most important factor in Democratic Governor Jim Florio’s defeat this November was his decision to raise taxes in his first year in office in 1990.

Upon assuming office that year, Florio faced a staggering state budget deficit and a state treasury unable to meet payrolls and provide essential services. Acting out of courage or, as some would say, political foolishness, Florio took a decisive stand. He pushed through a massive $2.8 billion tax increase and slashed state services in an effort to set the state’s finances in order. Public outrage was intense.

Florio faced a statewide protest movement that sought to remove him from office. The effort failed then, but succeeded last week—and the lesson will not be lost on Bill Clinton. Florio lost because he raised taxes to cut the deficit and the voters never forgave him.

Surprisingly, this was not the outcome expected by most analysts. In fact, it appeared just one week before the election that voters had either forgotten Florio’s “crime” or simply forgiven him. The Governor held a “commanding” lead in the polls—as high as 7% the day before the election. And unlike Mary Sue Terry, Florio had run an excellent campaign, was personally regarded as tough when he needed to be and even exhibited some charisma.

Florio did invite Clinton to New Jersey to campaign for him, and the White House responded. During the weeks leading up to the election, President Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and a number of cabinet members all came to support Florio’s reelection effort. This intense White House involvement seems due to Clinton’s realization that a Florio victory would be important because the New Jersey Governor’s record so closely paralleled his own. Florio’s campaign management team was even the same one that had helped Clinton get elected last year.

But Republican victor Christie Todd Whitman had big guns in her camp, too. Ed Rollins, the mastermind behind Ronald Reagan’s 1984 electoral landslide, served as her chief strategist. Rollins was assisted by Lyn Nofziger, a veteran of the first Reagan White House. They helped Whitman to overcome some early stumbles and then, in the final days of the race, they closed the gap with Florio with a string of speeches and advertisements designed to remind voters why they were so angry with Florio in 1990.

Still, in the end, as in Virginia, it was more of a Democratic defeat than a Republican victory. The margin was a mere 37,000 votes out of the more than 2.4 million votes cast. New Jersey was another victory for the anti-incumbent sentiment and sent a strong message on taxes.

New York City
Republican Rudolph Giuliani’s race against incumbent Democratic Mayor David Dinkins was a rematch of the 1989 election. That year Dinkins won by a small margin—and this year Giuliani managed to flip the votes of a mere 100,000 (of the roughly 2 million total votes) to end Democratic rule in the U.S.’ largest city.

Dinkins, who by all accounts is one of most decent and honorable men in politics, faced enormous difficulties dealing with the divisive and systemic problems plaguing New York City. His efforts to bring people together ran into events and diversions that proved to be his undoing.

The Crown Heights killings and riots brought about deep frictions between New York’s Jewish and African American residents. At first, Dinkins hesitated in condemning the African American riots, and then he appeared to side too closely with the Jewish community. In an effort to act in a balanced manner and heal rather than contribute to division, he ended up annoying both communities.

Dinkins’ Republican opponent, Giuliani, is a former U.S. Attorney in New York City with a strong record as a crime fighter. He latched onto the Crown Heights Affair to paint Dinkins as a weak and indecisive mayor incapable of governing the city. Giuliani raised the issue of crime and the judiciary, and the matter of race. There is no question that in the minds of many white New Yorkers, “crime” is a code-word for the fear that many white ethnics have for African Americans.

Dinkins’ effort to challenge this racial politics backfired and only further angered white voters who turned against him. Exit polls showed that the 51% to 49% Giuliani victory was the result of a very polarized vote. Giuliani won the white vote 77% to 21%; Dinkins won the African American vote 95% to 5% and the Latino vote 60% to 38%. Dinkins even lost the traditionally liberal Jewish vote 68% to 32%.

And though Clinton did campaign with Dinkins, the race was just too tightly focused on New York-specific issues for the President to have much of an impact.

***

It is not at all clear that any of these elections were a referendum on Clinton’s presidency. In fact, all three of these races were decided on the basis of local issues and the failure of local Democratic campaigns. But what does come through clearly from these races are several lessons for the beleaguered President.

1) The President doesn’t have coat-tails. Even in cities and states where he and Administration officials campaigned hard, they couldn’t produce a victory.

2) Anti-incumbency is still one the strongest forces alive in U.S. politics. One Democratic analyst correctly noted that if Republican incumbents had been running (and some were), their fate probably would have been the same. Voters want change – – that’s why they defeated Bush and that’s why they defeated this year’s Democrats.

3) Crime and fear for personal safety have emerged as major issues, especially in urban areas. Clinton will have a chance next week to win some ground on this issue when debate begins in earnest on his tough crime bill. As a “new Democrat,” the President still has chance to move to the center of the political debate by appealing to traditionally conservative values.

4) Voters feel that government isn’t working. Taxes are too high, the deficit is too big, services are too inefficient, and the economy and our social relations are plagued by systemic problems that aren’t getting better. Somehow Clinton must address these problems or face voter wrath in 1996. Health care and welfare reform are two of his initiatives designed to do just that. But many feel that in each case Clinton has compromised away too many principles, leaving proposals unable to bring about meaningful change.

Clinton’s fundamental problem remains: he was elected as a minority president (with only 43% of the vote), yet he faces the types of challenges that can only be successfully met with a majority mandate.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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