They don't think it's so funny anymore.
Democrats won the two big prizes in Tuesday's elections as Warner won in Virginia and Jim McGreevey was elected governor in New Jersey, ending almost a decade of Republican control in two big states. Both candidates did it by playing to the center of the political road. Both of their Republican opponents ended up in a ditch on the far right. In most elections, but especially in a time of crisis, the center is the place to be.
Both victors got plenty of help from their GOP foes. For one thing, the Republicans in both states faced bruising primaries where they beat more moderate Republicans. Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler pulled a surprise upset against former Congressman Bob Franks. No one thought a pro-life, anti-gun control Republican like Schundler could win in a moderate state like New Jersey. Unfortunately for Schundler, they were proven right once the general election arrived. In Virgina, Attorney General Mark Earley fought a bruising fight against Lt. Governor John Hager. Republicans held a convention rather than a primary to choose their candidates. Conservatives usually win at conventions, where diehards are much more likely to turn up.
While the Republicans were smacking each other around, the Democrats were sticking to a centrist, bipartisan message. Warner stressed he would work with the other party while Virginia's incumbent Republican governor Jim Gilmore was busy fighting with his own party. Gilmore has staked his legacy on repealing the property tax on cars. But a partial repeal had already drained state coffers at the exact moment the recession began to take hold. Republicans in the state senate asked him to delay complete repeal so they could avoid drastic budget cuts. Gilmore said no. Suddenly the party that came to power with a message of fiscal discipline couldn't pass a budget.
In New Jersey, McGreevey urged fiscal discipline while promising not to raise taxes. Schundler countered by promising to rid the state of highway tolls. Now, no one likes toll booths, but getting rid of them in the middle of a fiscal crisis did not seem like a top priority. Meanwhile, McGreevey kept stressing that Schundler's support for school vouchers and opposition to abortion and gun control was "wrong for New Jersey."
By playing to the middle, neither Dem gave their opponent much to aim at. Earley's claim that Warner was heading "the most liberal ticket in Virginia history" seemed off-target when Warner was meeting with the NRA (which ended up endorsing Earley, but only at the last minute). Schundler sputtered that McGreevey was lying on his no-tax promise. He even spent his concession speech warning McGreevey that he would be watching him for any tax increases. Yeah, but watching from outside the governor's mansion.
Did the terrorist attacks play much of a part in the election? Not much. It wasn't a partisan issue and all four candidates pledged to keep their constituents safe. Did the election results have national resonance? In 1993, Republicans won several key races, foreshadowing their takeover of Congress the next year. But these races are almost always decided on local issues. And with the future so uncertain now, who knows what the political calculus will be in another twelve months? If things stay so uncertain, candidates in either party will do well to stay in the middle of the road.