The Journal Editorial Report | November 11, 2005 | PBS
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briefing and opinion
November 11, 2005

 GOP Wake-Up Call Or No Biggie?
U.S. Senator Jon S. Corzine
New Jersey gubernatorial candidate, U.S. Senator Jon S. Corzine, D-N.J., sat with husband and wife, Leo and Evelyn Viniar of Fort Lee, N.J., as he campaigned at the Coach House Diner in Hackensack, N.J., November 7, 2005. (AP/Mel Evans)

As we predicted here last week, there was a lot of bad news for Republicans in this week's elections. In California, all four referenda pushed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger were defeated. The Republican candidate for governor in New Jersey was beaten handily, and the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia also lost, even after a last-minute visit from President Bush, who won the state a year ago.


Joining the panel to discuss the meaning of this week's elections are Jason Riley, a member of the editorial board who's followed the California vote carefully; Kim Strassel, also a member of the editorial board; and John Fund, who covers politics for OpinionJournal.com.

PAUL GIGOT: Jason, some Republicans I've talked to this week said this was no big deal, all they did was lose two governorships that they hadn't held before and by about the same margins. Thus, no national lessons. Do you agree with that?

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JASON RILEY: Off-year elections do tend to be about local concerns, so you have to be careful not to extrapolate too much from the results on Tuesday. It is true that in '01 these same two states elected Democratic governors when Bush's poll ratings were sky high, almost near 90 percent. But it is also true that there are some lessons here that Republicans might want to learn, because next year a lot more will be at stake. One of those lessons is to run on issues where you can distinguish yourself from your opponents. For Republicans that is usually taxes, and in both New Jersey and Virginia the Republican candidates strayed from that. It didn't work out too well.

GIGOT: John, in Virginia the Republican never really got his tax story straight, did he? The governor, Mark Warner, had passed a major tax increase with the help of some Republican votes in the legislature, but he didn't run against that tax increase.

JOHN FUND: The tax increase issue hurt him badly, because the business community told him, "Do not take the no new taxes pledge because we might have to raise taxes during your term." As a result he had a mixed message. Some Democrats attacked the Republican candidate on taxes from the right.

KIM STRASSEL: The same thing happened in New Jersey. The GOP in New Jersey is not in the strongest shape and maybe this wasn't the best candidate. But property taxes in New Jersey are the highest in the country. There is a lot of traction to be gained on this issue. Doug Forrester hit on it some, but in the end he reverted in the end to running commercials using his opponent's ex-wife to talk about a family values issue. In the end he lost.

RILEY: The New Jersey example is pretty telling about the state of the party. I mean, when voters tell you that taxes are your biggest issue, and then vote for the Democratic candidate, you know that the GOP in New Jersey is in trouble.

Jason Riley
FUND: Another one is, Paul, the Democrats have got their organizational act together. They were running on all cylinders in every state, especially in California where their union allies were able to raise $180 million and defeat all of those initiatives. But also, in Virginia they very carefully cultivated culturally conservative voters and they picked up areas that no Democrat has won in 20 years -- Prince William County outside of Washington, for example.

GIGOT: What about the lessons for Democrats from Virginia that you can raise taxes and you can prosper. You can survive in the next election, as they seem to have in Virginia? Is that going to be a lesson that Democrats will use going into 2006, and especially 2008?

FUND: I think it makes Mark Warner a significant potential presidential candidate, or at least a vice presidential candidate, let's say, if Hillary Clinton is looking for someone from the South. I think it is dangerous, because the Democrats really do believe that they have unlocked the key to higher taxes in Virginia.

GIGOT: It's interesting. So you think Mark Warner is a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton going into -- if he decides to run for president.

FUND: Some people have doubts about Hillary running nationwide. Mark Warner has cultivated the NASCAR Democrats, and he has won them once for himself, and now for Mr. Kaine, who is the new governor.

GIGOT: I think there's also a lesson for Republicans here, nationally, who think that Democrats are always going to nominate somebody in the John Kerry mold, who will be culturally condescending to conservative voters.

FUND: And from Massachusetts.

GIGOT: And from Massachusetts. They can't count on that all the time.

Kim Strassel
STRASSEL: No, I mean Tim Kaine came out, he was opposed to the death penalty. He's also opposed to abortion. These were deeply held religious views. Not only did he not condescend to culturally conservative voters in the state, he might have actually got a little bit of sympathy from them in the end, because his opponent kept beating him on this death penalty message. I think some people might have felt that in a way that they were attacking his religion and he got a lot of play from that.

RILEY: The Republican lesson from Virginia, I think, is that immigration is not something that brings voters, Republican voters, out to the polls. The Republican candidate, Kilgore, ran hard trying to stew up anti-immigrant sentiment. It didn't win him voters. It is an issue that plays very well at the polls sometimes, but on election day it doesn't seem to bring voters out.

GIGOT: It looks better in opinion polls before the election than it really does drive voter behavior. I can't think of a single election, in fact, where immigration has ever really turned an election.

Jason, I want to ask you about California, where Arnold Schwarzenegger waived the white flag this week. He said it was his fault. He is now going to go back, try to work with the Democratic legislature. Is this going to give him a shot to get re-elected next year?

Paul Gigot
RILEY: It wouldn't be the strategy I would use. It is sort of the mode he was in when he first got elected, which is I'm going to try and work with these guys and get things done this way. If he couldn't do that with the sky-high poll ratings that he had right after being elected, he is not going to be able to do it with the approval ratings he has now. So I don't know if that is the strategy to go at.

But I don't think that this necessarily means his chances are gone for winning next year. I think he demonstrated some leadership. He did what he said he was going to do, which was try to work with the legislature, and if not, take the issues to a special election. He did that and voters are looking for leaders.

GIGOT: John, does he have a chance to be re-elected?

FUND: Oh sure. The Democrats who are running against him are old-line, liberal Democrats. That is exactly the kind of Democrat who got California into trouble under Gray Davis. I think Arnold Schwarzenegger's biggest mistake was not just the initiatives that he put on the ballot, some of which were a mixed bag, but also the fact that he called a special election. He didn't convince voters why in the world you have to come out for the fourth time in four years to vote on these. In retrospect it is clear Schwarzenegger should have waited for a regular election cycle, perhaps when he was also on the ballot, and had a combined effort.

John Fund
RILEY: Let's not discount what the other side did here. I mean, look, organized labor threw $100 million...

FUND: $180 million.

RILEY: $180 million at demonizing this guy. So that is what he was up against.

GIGOT: All right, we don't have much time, John. Very quickly. Are Republicans in danger of losing control of the House and the Senate next year drawing from this election?

FUND: Given the chaos we have seen in the House and Senate on budget and tax votes this year, this looks very much like the trouble the Democrats got into in 1994 when they couldn't pass bills, and they ended up as an historic loss. There is a danger sign.

GIGOT: If they splinter, they are in trouble because they won't have anything to show to the voters come next year. All right, John. Thank you.