Democrats Sweep Governors' Races

 
Warner's victory in Virginia and McGreevey's win in New Jersey ended eight years of Republican control of the top offices in those states.

The Democrats also scored a major victory over Republicans in the New Jersey Assembly races as they joined McGreevey's campaign charge to capture control of the House for the first time in 10 years and come within one vote of taking over the state Senate.

In Washington state, the Democrats also appeared to have won control of the House, which, if final counts of absentee ballots hold, would end a three-year split in the chamber and give the party command of both the executive and legislative branches of government. Democrats already control the state Senate and governor's office.

If the current trend in Washington holds, the Democratic and Republican Parties would both control 17 legislatures each, leaving 16 split between them.

Warner will succeed incumbent GOP Gov. Jim Gilmore, barred by term limits from serving more than four years. McGreevey will take over from acting GOP Gov. Donald DeFrancesco, who replaced Christine Todd Whitman earlier this year after she was appointed by President Bush to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Warner, a wealthy businessman, defeated Republican Mark Earley by more than 100,000 votes, taking 52 percent of the ballots cast to Earley's 47. Libertarian candidate William B. Redpath drew one percent, or just over 14,000 votes. Virginia Democrat Timothy M. Kaine won the lieutenant governor's office, slipping past Republican Jay Katzen by a 50-48 percent margin. In the Attorney General's race, however, Democrat Donald A. McEachin faired poorly against Republican Jerry W. Kilgore who took 60 percent of the vote.

McGreevey, the mayor of Woodbridge who was making his second bid for governor, won handily as well over GOP Jersey City Mayor Brett Schundler. With nearly 100 percent of precincts reporting, McGreevey was pulling 56 percent of the ballots cast to Schundler's 42 percent.According to late figures, Democratic candidates also gave Republicans a drubbing in New Jersey's legislative contests. For the first time in a decade, the Democratic Party retook control of the House and nearly took over the state Senate again, fighting the GOP to a 20-20 seat split.

The apparent Senate tie, pending the outcome of a recount in one district, could set the stage for a powerful struggle between Majority Leader John O. Bennett and Minority Leader Richard J. Codey over who will preside as Senate President. The outcome of the Senate tangle could be crucial to Democrats, since New Jersey has no lieutenant govenor and the senate president is the second most powerful official in the state.

The dramatic power shifts in New Jersey reflected a growing trend there in recent years away from Republican conservatism and toward the more moderate Democratic views favoring gun control and a woman's right to choose. McGreevey embraced and campaigned hard on both those issues and refused to join in Earley's no-new-taxes pledge, as he sought to appeal to a growing suburban population of professionals and more liberal voters in the state.

But in Virginia, Warner ran a traditional centrist campaign designed to appeal to the state's more moderate and conservative voters. For example, he refused to be drawn into a debate with Earley over abortion and gun control and played up his "fiscal conservatism," as he called it, on spending and taxes. Earley, who resigned as state attorney general to run for governor, by contrast ran ads pledging not to raise taxes and promoting his no-compromise position against abortion.

Warner also played up the idea of bipartisanship in government at a time when Gov. Gilmore was engaged in a historic struggle with his GOP colleagues in the General Assembly over the budget. That message, according to Virginia political analysts, seemed to resonate with voters fed up with the feuding. In the end, they said, voters also found it hard to decipher the differences between Warner and Earley on economic matters in general. That confusion paid off for Warner in the predominantly GOP rural areas of the state, where he launched his campaign and continued to visit often throughout the race.

Although he won by a comfortable margin, Warner was unable to drag Democratic legislative candidates into office with him as McGreevey apparently did in New Jersey. Virginia Republicans once again outgunned their Democratic rivals, increasing their majority in the 100-seat House from 52 seats to 64. Their control of the Assembly will make it difficult for Warner to get legislation passed without delivering on the message of bipartisan compromise he stressed successfully in his campaign.

The Democrats did take some pleasure, however, in ousting five-term Del. John H. Rust Jr., one of the GOP's chief political strategists and the man who led the party's redistricting effort in Northern Virginia. Rust soured Northern Virginia voters with his stands against a tax referendum to help fund schools and improve transportation.

Rust was the only Republican incumbent to lose his re-election bid, and it may have been his redistricting plan drawn to favor GOP candidates that helped his colleagues not only stay in office but strengthen their majority hold on the House by a 30 seat margin.

In New Jersey, on the other hand, a court-ordered redistricting plan used for this year's election apparently contributed to the Democrats' victory in the House and its tie in the Senate races.

"I think you're seeing the power of redistricting play itself out, especially in New Jersey and Virginia, " said Tim Storey, a political analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Issues matter, but I think redistricting more than anything else made the difference in a lot of these races."

A few political observers in Virginia sought to blame the Democrats' poor showing in the legislative races on voter turnout, which was lower than some had anticipated. But in New Jersey, the low turnout - the worst in the state since World War II - actually may have helped the Democrats. Although few candidates blamed the poor turnouts on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks which have dominated the news during the last two crucial campaign months, some political analysts said fear of further terrorist acts has consumed Americans so that many found it difficult to focus on the Nov. 6 elections.

"These off-year elections are such a challenge for turnout because there's so little publicity to begin with," said Storey. "And then you add in the Sept. 11 attacks...I think that probably did have a dampening effect."

Aside from offices, there were also a number of initiatives on the ballots in Tuesday's election. Nearly 33 statewide measures in five states ranging from healthcare initiatives and transportation bonds to school funding issues and constitutional amendments were passed by voters. In one of the more significant referendum outcomes, Washington state voters overwhelmingly approved a massive tobacco tax increase, raising the excise fee on cigarettes by 60 cents to $1.42 a pack. The hike makes Washington the highest tobacco-taxing state in the country, with New York trailing a distant second at $1.11 per pack.

And in local elections in Minnesota and Virginia, school levy issues also found some success as many communities signaled their approval of increased taxes to help build more public schools and hire more teachers.

 
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