America votes: Republicans win the election issues

Click to follow
Washington - Results of Tuesday's state and local elections were hailed by the Republican Party yesterday as a significant victory and a happy precursor of next year's mid-term Congressional elections. A closer look at the results suggests, however, that party political considerations were not at the forefront of voters' intentions, as Mary Dejevsky explains.

On the face of it, Tuesday was an excellent night for the Republican Party. They won both the state governor posts that were being contested, in Virginia and New Jersey, and in Virginia took all three top state posts for the first time: governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Rudolph Giuliani was re-elected mayor of New York City, with a double- figure majority - much increased from his 2.9 per cent victory four years ago, and Republican mayors elsewhere retained their posts.

The Republicans also kept easily the one Congressional seat on offer - the New York seat vacated by Susan Molinari who defected from the House of Representatives to become a television talk-show host and ``spend more time with her family''. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Jim Nicholson, who was in Virginia to support the victorious candidate for governor, Jim Gilmore, said that the Virginia campaign could provide a model for next year's Congressional election campaign.

The night was hardly the disaster for the Democrats that these results suggest, however. They lost in New York to an incumbant mayor who had been attracted support across the party divide for restoring safety to a city that was regarded before his election as dangerous and in irreversible decline. The extent to which Mr Giuliani was seen as first as saviour of New York and only second as a Republican was illustrated by the fact that he had a support group of ``Democrats for Giuliani'' and - according to exit polls - received 70 per cent of the traditionally Democrat New York Jewish vote, against his Jewish Democrat challenger. Yesterday, Mr Giuliani intimated that he would not rule out using his success as a springboard for higher office.

Both the biggest ``victory'' and the biggest disappointment for the Democrats was the race for governor in New Jersey, where the present governor, Christine Todd Whitman, only just fought off the challenge from Jim McGreevey, a local Democrat. Ms Whitman, a prominent Republican sometimes fancied as a presidential candidate in 2000, retained her post by only 1 per cent.

The forces at work in this election, however, were remarkably similar to those at work in Virginia. Mr McGreevey trumped Ms Whitman on the very policy, a traditionally Republican one, that had brought her a surprise victory four years before - cutting taxes. And he almost succeeded.

In New Jersey, a state - like Virginia - with large numbers of suburban commuters, Mr McGreevey attacked Ms Whitman for allowing local property taxes to be the highest in the country and for not curbing increases in car insurance rates - also the highest in the country. Even though the governor has no direct authority over either property taxes Ms Whitman was thrown on to the defensive.

In Virginia the Republicans pledged to abolish the hated state property tax on cars - and won on this one issue. A majority of traditional Democrat voters who actually voted Democrat on Tuesday, said that their top priority was education spending and standards. About one-third of Democrats, however, said that for them the car tax was the priority issue, and they had voted Republican. As one commentator said, the message from both states seemed to be: ``Don't mess with our cars.''