Humbling GOP Defeats Don’t Bode Well for Midterm Races

Times Staff Writer

For Republicans across the nation, the best news in Tuesday’s election may have been that more was not at stake.

With President Bush facing his lowest job approval ratings and polls showing widespread dissatisfaction over the country’s direction, the GOP suffered a series of bruising blows -- from decisive losses in the New Jersey and Virginia governor’s races to the clean-sweep rejection of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ballot initiatives and even the resounding defeat of Randy Kelly, a Democratic mayor in St. Paul, Minn., who was hurt politically because he campaigned last year for the president.

Most Democratic strategists acknowledged that the results would not necessarily predict next year’s midterm elections, when the ballot will be more crowded with House, Senate and gubernatorial races. Bush and the congressional GOP have a year to regain support and restore momentum.


But many Democrats, and even some Republicans, said Tuesday’s outcomes offered a preview of the difficulties the GOP can expect next fall if the party cannot improve its standing before then.

“The waning of enthusiasm for Bush and his presidency is national,” said veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. “The dynamics look different today than the dynamics that enabled [Republicans] to win the presidency and hold their control of Congress” in recent elections.

Off-year elections, inexorably shaped by local concerns and the qualities of the candidates, never produce an entirely consistent pattern. The races usually yield an unpredictable assortment of winners and losers.

One of the clearest losers Tuesday was Kelly, St. Paul’s Democratic mayor who last year endorsed Bush. Voters in the heavily Democratic city ousted him in favor of former City Council member Chris Coleman, a Democrat who won by more than two-to-one.

One of the biggest winners wasn’t on the ballot: outgoing Democratic Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, whose stratospheric approval rating in his state (80% in one recent survey) helped carry his Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to victory over Republican Jerry W. Kilgore in the governor’s race.

Warner, who’s exploring a bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, said Kaine’s victory showed the two men had developed a model for winning in Republican-leaning red states that includes bipartisanship, fiscal discipline and grabbing what he termed “the sensible center.”

Although Democrats were uniformly cheered, Tuesday’s results opened a fissure in GOP ranks between those who saw the outcomes as a warning for next year and those who viewed the elections as primarily reflective of local concerns.

Republicans minimizing the implications of the defeats in New Jersey, Virginia and California found solace in other victories -- even the reelection of one of the party’s most liberal officeholders, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg

In Virginia, Republicans won the lieutenant governors’ race and led in a razor-thin attorney general’s race that is headed for a recount. In Ohio, voters rejected a ballot initiative, opposed by state Republican leaders, to transfer control of congressional redistricting to an independent commission.

“I can credibly tell you that I believe there was more of a structure Tuesday night that was relatively stable, and that’s comforting,” said GOP pollster Bill McInturff.

He added that Bush’s standing was likely to affect Republican prospects more directly in next year’s elections. Other analysts and politicians saw signs in Tuesday’s results that sagging poll numbers for Bush and the congressional GOP were already hurting other Republicans.

As Bush’s job approval ratings have declined to below 40% in almost all recent surveys, he has seen his support erode at both ends of his coalition. While his job approval ratings among independents have plummeted below 30% in some surveys, he’s also seen enthusiasm flag among his base, measured in a steady decline in the percentage of Americans who say they “strongly” approve of his performance.

Republican nominee Kilgore experienced something of the same squeeze in losing the Virginia governorship. So did Republican Douglas R. Forrester in his defeat by Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine in the New Jersey governor’s election.

Although Bush made an election-eve appearance for Kilgore in which he urged Republicans to turn out, there was no late surge among conservative voters that helped lift Republicans to gains around the country in the 2002 and 2004 elections. Kilgore’s performance, in fact, did not meet expectations in some Republican-leaning rural areas.

To Greenberg, those results are a sign that Republicans cannot count on massive turnout next year so long as Bush’s “strong” support remains so low. “Their strategy depends on ... deep enthusiasm from their base, and we are now down to a very small group of people who are deeply attached to him,” Greenberg said.

Kilgore’s erosion at the other end of the GOP coalition was even more dramatic. He was routed among socially moderate swing voters across northern Virginia. For instance, Kaine carried affluent Fairfax County by 60%, amassing a crushing 60,186-vote margin over Kilgore.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), whose district includes much of Fairfax, said Kilgore’s poor performance in the area should tell the White House and congressional Republicans that they need to repair their tattered image with independent voters.

“In our [meetings], all we hear is from guys in safe districts and all they say ... is we have to keep the base happy,” Davis said. “But you’ve got to start making independents happy or we won’t be a majority.”

Davis, former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the same tide that overwhelmed Kilgore in Fairfax County could threaten Republican House members representing similar suburban communities across the Northeast. Democrats are targeting a number of GOP incumbents from such districts, including Reps. Michael G. Fitzpatrick and Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania, Mike Ferguson in New Jersey and Christopher Shays in Connecticut.

The voting patterns in New Jersey were similar to those in Virginia. Like Kilgore, Forrester suffered from “a weak performance by the Republican base and very limited traction with swing voters,” said David P. Rebovich, chairman of the political science department at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.

The numbers were especially bleak for Forrester in large suburban counties such as Bergen, Middlesex and Mercer that are similar to northern Virginia.

One GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking said Tuesday’s results did not increase the administration’s anxiety about next year’s elections -- in part because it already recognizes that Republicans will face a stiff challenge unless Bush rebuilds his public support.

“If you’ve got the president’s job approval rating at the point where it is, it tells you something, and we’re cognizant of that,” said the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing White House matters. “But I’m not any more worried, and I don’t think anyone around the White House is any more worried than they were two days ago.”