To the Moderates Go the Spoils

The election returns make one thing very clear: The all-important suburban voter can't abide the extremist wings of either party

By Richard S. Dunham

The 2001 off-year elections were a decidedly mixed bag. Wealthy Democrat Mark Warner was elected governor of Virginia while wealthy Republican Michael Bloomberg eked out a victory in New York's mayoral race. Yes, money does matter. Meanwhile, Republican gubernatorial candidates flubbed and fumbled their way to defeat in New Jersey and the Old Dominion. Yes, good campaigns do matter.

Amid the confusing messages, however, one political trend is incontrovertible: Northeastern suburban swing voters are becoming increasingly unhappy with top-of-the-ticket Republicans they consider out of the political mainstream. And that only accentuates the geographic divide between the increasingly Democratic East and West Coasts and the strongly GOP Sun Belt.

In Fairfax County, Va., a tony Washington suburb captured last year by President Bush, Republican Mark Earley was trounced as his social conservatism and antitax message backfired. And in the Garden State, Republican Bret Schundler's support for private-school vouchers and concealed weapons -- along with his opposition to abortion -- was anathema to swing voters. "If you want the suburban voters, you cannot take left-wing or right-wing positions," says Diana Evans, a political scientist at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. "It suggests the wisdom of moderating the message."


  That's exactly what successful candidates did on Nov. 6. In New Jersey, Democrat Jim McGreevey distanced himself from his past liberalism to run as a fiscally responsible centrist. Four years ago, when McGreevey was narrowly defeated by moderate Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman, he lost middle-of-the-road Bergen County by 11 points. This time, he won it by 11.

Warner, who made a fortune in wireless technology, was elected in a heavily Republican state by sounding very much like a Republican on issues ranging from economic development to family values. "The model is to develop a unifying economic message and avoid emphasizing divisive, litmus-test social issues," says Robert D. Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University.

That was the formula George W. Bush successfully adopted in 2000. But it was one that eluded the GOP a year later, as the party nominated true believers for governor. Schundler, a protege of conservative publisher Steve Forbes and former Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp, ran as a committed supply-sider -- and his campaign never caught fire. Even National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) concedes that Schundler "campaigned on a platform that was out of touch with New Jersey voters."


  Like Schundler, Earley stuck to a hard-line antitax message. But Earley, who was backed by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, ran into resistance from business leaders in tech-heavy Northern Virginia who favor a sales-tax increase for road construction. Swing voters abandoned Earley, even as they voted for GOP candidates down the ballot.

Not surprisingly, Republicans' spin on their 2001 defeats is that they were individual flukes, while Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe sees "a huge shift" in political momentum. Neither view is accurate. For Republicans, though, the election of 2001 again demonstrates that if the GOP can't win in the suburbs, it will become increasingly difficult for the party to compete on the coasts.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online

Edited by Beth Belton