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Learning the wrong lessons from 2001 elections

By W. James Antle III
web posted November 12, 2001

To paraphrase the late conservative intellectual Richard Weaver, election results have consequences. The consequences of the off-year 2001 elections will not be limited to the manner in which the victors govern; they will have a national impact as future pretenders to public office ponder their meaning and plan campaigns accordingly.

Republicans are likely to draw all the wrong lessons from November 6 and do so at their peril. To review, the GOP lost the governorship in both Virginia and New Jersey while retaining the mayor's office in New York City (the Houston mayoral race will be decided in a runoff). Democratic investor Mark Warner, who had never before held public office and whose prior political experience consisted of chairing the state Democratic Party and a losing Senate race against Republican John Warner, defeated former Republican attorney general Mark Earley by 52 per cent to 47 per cent.

Woodbridge Mayor Jim McGreevey, a former Democratic state senator who narrowly lost to Christine Todd Whitman in 1997, defeated Republican former Jersey City mayor Bret Schundler by a more substantial 57 per cent to 42 per cent. Media mogul Michael Bloomberg came from behind to beat Democratic city advocate Mark Green, a former aide to Ralph Nader, by 50.4 per cent to 47 per cent.

Schundler and Earley were staunch conservatives who opposed abortion and many gun control measures. They took a hard line against taxes, with Schundler in particular being a committed supply-sider. Bloomberg, on the other hand, is a committed social liberal. He issued vague assurances that he would continue many of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's policies, but had a lengthy record of donating money to the most liberal Democrats and only registered as a Republican to enter the GOP's less crowded mayoral primary.

The conventional wisdom is that these results prove, now more than ever, that conservatives can't win. Efforts by laudable organizations like the Republican Liberty Caucus and economist Stephen Moore's Club for Growth to nominate Republican candidates who favor smaller government, lower taxes and fewer regulations will be hobbled by this perception. After all, both Schundler and Earley pounded the tax issue hard to no avail and were gun nuts and cat's paws of the fanatical religious right to boot. Better to nominate people with high name recognition or lots of money who will wage a "centrist" and "inclusive" campaign, regardless of whether they actually advocate any conservative policies one might identity with being a Republican.

How is it inclusive to have campaigns in which both major candidates agree with each other on all the major issues, disagreeing with high per centages of the electorate?

The race that this has the most obvious implications for is the gubernatorial election coming up in California in 2002. Beset by problems with the economy and energy, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' vulnerability grows by the day. Republicans are hungry for a candidate who can defeat him and revitalize the party's fortunes in the state. Whether this candidate is a Republican in anything besides name only matters little.

Richard Riordan

Enter Richard Riordan, the Michael Bloomberg of the California governor's race. Once a pro-life Reaganite, he has long since abandoned that sort of conservatism. He favors abortion on demand, gun control, domestic partnerships, affirmative action and a whole host of liberal pet causes. Riordan, who stepped down as mayor of Los Angeles after two terms earlier this year, has a history of endorsing and financially supporting Democratic candidates, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and, amazingly enough, Gray Davis in 1998. In fact, he has donated $1 million to Democratic candidates over the past 20 years, compared to just $660,000 to Republicans. His campaigns have in the past been heavily staffed with Democratic consultants, and this year is no exception: Susan Estrich, Clint Reilly and Pat Caddell are among the Democrats advising him.

Riordan's overall record as mayor of Los Angeles was certainly not bad. He managed many of the same innovations that Giuliani did in New York – he was able to reduce crime, create a more hospitable business climate and impose fiscal discipline on city appropriations. He even managed to restore law and order without substantially alienating Los Angeles' minority communities, an amazing accomplishment in that city (especially for a white Republican mayor) and one that alluded even Giuliani. But conservatism in comparison to the urban Democratic machines that have been running the United States' largest cities for decades does not qualify as conservatism proper nor does it mean that Riordan would pursue policies radically different from the ones that have failed under Davis.

The candidate in the race who offers the sharpest contrast to Riordan is Los Angeles business man Bill Simon, son of late Treasury Secretary William Simon. He is a thorough conservative touting free-market solutions to California's problems, as he runs on a platform that is pro-growth, pro-business and pro-family. In other words, he is the candidate most like Bret Schundler. (Worse yet for the locals, his conservatism could even be compared to that of Dan Lungren, who as state attorney general was thought to be the most promising conservative politician in California since Reagan but ran a disastrous gubernatorial campaign in 1998.) Of course, it may all come down to the following: Sure, Simon is a real Republican, but Riordan polls better.

That conservatives must necessarily lose elections is a crass, if deliberate, oversimplification of the 2001 results. In fact, both McGreevey and Warner worked hard to distance themselves from liberalism and instead presented themselves as moderates. Warner promised to oppose any new gun controls in Virginia, said he would leave the abortion restrictions imposed during the past eight years intact, opposed same-sex marriage and even promised (with predictable qualifications about economic performance) to continue outgoing Gov. Jim Gilmore's efforts to abolish the commonwealth's hated car tax.

For his part, McGreevey conceded that former Gov. Jim Florio's disastrous tax increase, which he had defended for a decade, was "a mistake" and eventually even denied any plans of raising taxes. Instead, he disputed that Schundler had cut rather than raised taxes in Jersey City, with polling data appearing to show that this helped convince voters that Schundler was no more likely to cut and just as likely to increase taxes as McGreevey. While McGreevey hit Schundler as an "extremist" on abortion and gun control, Schundler beat him by ten points among voters who decided their vote on the abortion issue and the Republican's stance on issues like the assault weapons ban and even concealed carry was as likely to irritate Second Amendment supporters as gun-control backers.

Schundler and Earley ran awful campaigns. Earley was hobbled by the bickering between Gov. Gilmore and the Republican leaders in the Virginia legislature and was unable to make a compelling case to the state's voters that Republicans should continue in the governor's mansion. Schundler refused to stick to hitting McGreevey on taxes and instead remained defensive on guns and abortion and obsessed with discussing policy minutiae (for an excellent analysis on Schundler's flaws as a candidate and how he could have used his strengths as a person and office-holder to overcome them, read Patrick Ruffini's "Schundler Could've Won" in National Review On-Line Both men were also sandbagged by members of their own party, with New Jersey acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco behaving especially petulantly ever since Schundler won the GOP nomination.

Bloomberg was down in the polls by double digits until he received Rudy Giuliani's late endorsement and the overwhelmingly popular incumbent mayor began stumping for him. But his election may be inapplicable to the situations of the other Republicans elsewhere in the country for other reasons too, not even limited to his ability to spend $50 million of his own money on a campaign.

Mark Green, a white liberal, defeated Hispanic Bronx Borough President Ferando Ferrer in the Democratic primary. Al Sharpton's endorsement of Ferrer had become an issue, as did some vote double counting that took place at a polling place during the primary (although there is no serious dispute of the fact that Green won the Democratic primary by more than 19,000 votes). The sum total of these controversies alienated many minority voters who, despite their opposition to Giuliani for the past eight years, ended up supporting Bloomberg. Percy Sutton, owner of the popular black radio station WBLS, The Amsterdam News and The Daily Challenge were among the endorsements Bloomberg got from the city's black press. Bloomberg ended up winning 22 per cent of the black vote (blacks have voted against Giuliani in the last three mayoral elections by as much as 97 per cent) and 48 per cent of the Hispanic vote, tying Green.

In other words, Bloomberg won because he was positioned in such a way as to win the support of center-right Giuliani supporters and disaffected, predominantly liberal minority voters at the same time. This is not a scenario many Republicans are likely to be able to replicate – including Riordan in his unwise attempt to write off California's Republican vote.

Treating all elections as if they are the same can only produce generalizations that may not be useful to another race. If Republicans nominate bad candidates or candidates who are good on substance but execute poor campaigns, there will be election losses. Perhaps other races can be won by candidates that won't actually advance ostensible GOP policy goals. But ultimately, Republicans must again be reminded that basing their political strategy on winning at all costs by appealing to opponents rather than galvanizing supporters is a blueprint for failure.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at

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