PAUL GIGOT: Here's another subject that's been overshadowed by other news, the elections coming up around the country next week. These are local races, statewide races, and state referenda, but some of them are likely to have an impact on all of us.
The highest profile election is in California. It could tell us the political prospects for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is up for re-election next year.
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: The ultimate power is always with the people.
He has gone around his legislature and taken his case to the people again with several issues on the ballot, including one to limit state spending, another to lengthen the time required for teacher tenure, and another forcing public sector unions to get members' approval before using dues for politics.
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: I'm out to change the system.
Schwarzenegger strategically withheld his media blitz until late in the campaign while the opposition outspent him for months...
ANTI SCHWARZENEGGER AD: Another bad Schwarzenegger idea.
...and he watched his ratings plummet. This week polls show his reform initiatives do worse the more he campaigns for them.
Another national bell weather issue in California, unrelated to the Governor's agenda, is a ballot question asking voters to approve a controversial law requiring parental notification before an abortion can be performed on a minor.
Death penalty opponents are watching the governor's race in Virginia closely.
Republican Jerry Kilgore, a former attorney general, is running against Democrat Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine.
The state is largely conservative. It went for President Bush by 10 percentage points a year ago.
JERRY KILGORE: I'm Jerry Kilgore, candidate for governor, and my campaign sponsored this ad...
Kilgore has painted Kaine as anti-death penalty...
VICTIM'S FATHER FROM KILGORE AD: Tim Kaine voluntarily represented the person who murdered my son.
... and went so far as to suggest Kaine would even have opposed the death penalty for Hitler.
VICTIM'S FATHER FROM KILGORE AD: Adolph Hitler doesn't qualify for the death penalty.
Kaine admits he has a faith-based objection to the death penalty, but he has tried to blunt the attacks by promising to follow the law and enforce the death penalty as governor.
TIM KAINE: ... because that's the law.
Capital punishment is the hot button issue, but a big tax increase, which was supported by Kaine, is very much on voters' minds. Kilgore opposed it but has not said he would repeal it. The two men are neck-and-neck in the polls.
KAINE AD: Jerry Kilgore can't be trusted on taxes.
KILGORE AD: Tim Kaine -- too liberal to be governor.
New Jersey voters have been subjected to a bitter campaign for governor between Democrat US Senator John Corzine and Republican businessman Doug Forrester. Both men have spent millions of dollars of their own money on bitter and personal campaigns.
CORZINE AD: His company is being sued for fraud.
The candidates have made the issue corruption.
FORRESTER AD: More taxes, more corruption.
And property taxes which the polls say New Jersey voters are far more interested in. Convincing the voters which one is most likely to lower taxes may ultimately decide this too-close-to-call election.
PAUL GIGOT: Jason, let's start with California. The beginning of this year, Governor Schwarzenegger called this the "year of reform" in California and put these initiatives in play, first with the legislature, now on the ballot. Yet they seem to all be in trouble. What's gone wrong?
JASON RILEY: Well, first of all I think we should keep in mind that some of these polls are the same ones that had Arnold losing the recall election in '03 two weeks out. So this is not an exact science. But also, these poll numbers, we need to give credit where it's due. These poll numbers are also a function of the effectiveness of the opposition in demonizing Arnold over the past year. Fifty million dollars spent by the teachers unions; organized labor in general, 100 million dollars. And that reflects how substantive these reforms are.
Arnold is going for the jugular, so to speak here. I mean, he's hitting the unions in their fund-raising capabilities by saying with paycheck protection you have to get permission from your union members before you spend their dues money on political activities. And he's going after the political redistricting, telling politicians you cannot draw your districts to protect your incumbencies. These are big issues.
PAUL GIGOT: Sounds to me like what you're describing is the revenge of the political class. All the people who rely on power, on having power in Sacramento, and on taxpayers' dollars and redistributing them, Dan.
DAN HENNINGER: Well, exactly. You can draw a line down the center of California and on the coastal areas it's essentially a blue state, okay? The other half is a red state. The blue part is what represents the political interest. And what's been going on in California is very interesting. Since 1990, 660 thousand people have moved from the coastal areas to the middle of the state -- Bakersfield, Riverside -- what's called the "inland empire." And they're trying to get away from the high costs that Schwarzenegger himself is trying to address with these propositions.
PAUL GIGOT: You know, one of the things that's most surprising to me is this redistricting proposition, because in some ways it's a good government proposition. The LA TIMES is in favor of it, newspaper people of left and the right are for it, and the public ought to be for it in the sense that it encourages more political competition. In the last election, out of 53 congressional seats in California, 51 of the winners won with more than 60 percent of the vote. Now that's not election. That's Iraq under the Saddam regime. Why wouldn't they want more competitive elections, Jason?
JASON RILEY: Well, for Republicans who like to brag about their ideas, this is pretty hypocritical because it shows they don't really believe that their ideas will win voters over, that they need to fix these elections.
PAUL GIGOT: Because Republicans in the state who are incumbents are also opposed to this, is what you're saying.
JASON RILEY: Yes, everyone has been opposed to it. But I will say that this is what Arnold has in his favor. This election, this special election next week, only has initiatives on the ballot. There are no candidates. The last time that happened was '93, and you got very, very low turnout, which tends to help Republicans.
STEVE MOORE: Two years ago when Arnold took over, he didn't do everything right but he did a lot of right things in terms of pulling California's butt out of this fire of 25 billion dollars of budget deficits where the state was just running amok, and it was headed towards bankruptcy.
It's almost as if Californians have such a short memory they think, okay, everything's okay now. We can go back to these crazy ways of doing business that led to the crisis in the first place.
PAUL GIGOT: All right, let's shift to some of these other elections, Steve. Virginia is a conservative state, but the Democrat has moved ahead of the Republican in the polls in that state for governor. What's wrong with the Republican Party in that state?
STEVE MOORE: Well, this is going to be a crushing loss for Republicans if they lose this race. It is a red state. It's a state that Republicans should win. Bush won it by 10 points in the last election. What's going on in this state is a nice example of why the Republicans can implode as a party. The tax issue is still a live wire issue. You can see in some of those ads we showed, the Democrat, Tim Kaine, is running to the right of the Republican on taxes. And so a lot of the voters don't know who's the anti-tax candidate in this race. Kilgore has not taken a no tax pledge. And Kaine, the Democrat, has also been more in favor of cutting property taxes, which to me, Paul, is the big live wire issue in a lot of states.
JASON RILEY: And the other point, a good point to make, on why this has national implications -- particularly for the way Democrats think -- is because Warner, the current governor, two years ago instituted the biggest tax hike in history -- in state history in Virginia. If Democrats think that they can raise taxes and go to the polls and not suffer any consequences, trust me, other Democrats around the country will be keeping an eye on this.
DAN HENNINGER: A quick note to that. Having defaulted on taxes, Kilgore is now running against illegal immigration in Virginia. Now to be sure, illegal immigration is a big issue for Republicans. But if they give up their other issues and have to fall back on running on just that, they're going to lose.
PAUL GIGOT: One of the things about immigration over the years, if you look at it as an issue, it always looks better in the polls than it turns out being in terms of getting people to the ballot box and voting. So it'll be a warning to Republicans, if they run on this issue and lose, that it's not quite the great political issue that they think it is in the rest of the country.
Dan, what about other national implications for these races? We hear a lot about the fact that President Bush is down in the polls, he's a drag on the ticket for the Republicans. Is this going to be an indication of Bush's standing?
DAN HENNINGER: I think it is. It's all pretty much connected. The Republican base was dispirited, of course, by the Harriet Miers nomination. The spending in Washington certainly has had a tremendous effect on them and you need something to energize the Republican Party as a counter weight to that. And unless the Republicans -- going back to the beginning of our program -- unless Bush gets up and running on something like tax reform, they'll just be swept out to sea.
PAUL GIGOT: I would point out, though, that in 2001 Republicans did lose both of these governors races. And yet in 2002 they bounced back and did well, and of course they ended up winning again in 2004.
STEVE MOORE: The left is going to try -- if the Democrats win both of these races in Virginia and New Jersey, they're going to try to say, see, the voters don't want the Bush agenda of lower taxes. That's exactly the wrong message. In fact, the reason John Corzine has spent tens of millions of dollars on this race, and his Republican opponent, Forrester, has only spent a fraction of that. He has erased about a 15-point lead by attacking Corzine on voting against Bush tax cuts, on voting for all these tax increases.
So I think that the tax issue is still very much a live wire issue.
DAN HENNINGER: All three of these races are essentially about protecting the state legislatures in these states, the status quo. Certainly that's true in New Jersey, and certainly that's true in California, literally, and it is in Virginia as well. It's hard to believe voters are voting to just keep those horrible state capitals operating the way they are.
PAUL GIGOT: So it really could be -- it could be, and this would be ironic -- that the Republicans next week, after the elections, if they go as the polls now suggest, it could be pointing to, believe it or not, the Mayor of New York, Bloomberg, re-election as the demonstration of the one Republican victory.