Los Angeles Times

Paul Wong
Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Warner votes in Alexandria, Va. Warner was declared the winner in the race with nearly complete returns last night.<br><br>AP PHOTO

WASHINGTON Democrats rolled to victory in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races last night, recapturing seats Republicans have held for the last eight years.

Though the races turned more on local dynamics than on national themes, the twin gubernatorial wins by venture capitalist Mark Warner in Virginia and Woodbridge Mayor James E. McGreevey in New Jersey gave Democrats optimism about their prospects against the GOP in next year”s midterm elections.

“It”s never a good sign to lose elections badly,” said Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Republicans immediately countered that the Democratic triumphs were unlikely to signal any broader pattern in 2002. “Both Democrats ran as center-right Republicans,” insisted Trent Duffy, communication director at the Republican National Committee. “In 2002, voters will be able to vote for the real thing.”

National Republican leaders had been concerned for weeks about the prospects of their gubernatorial candidates, former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler and former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley. Several hours before the polls closed yesterday, Republican National Committee officials seemed to acknowledge defeat by e-mailing reporters a memo on why they should not view the results as a slap at President Bush.

Late results showed McGreevey holding a double-digit advantage, while Warner”s win was solid, but narrower than expected.

The New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races have attracted increased attention in recent years as the initial tests of voter sentiment in the first year of a new presidential term. But this year they were eclipsed by the long shadow of the Sept. 11 hijackings and the subsequent anthrax attacks.

Even leading Democrats, such as party chairman Terry McAuliffe, agreed that Democratic victories could not be seen as a sign of dissatisfaction with Bush, who now enjoys some of the highest presidential job approval ratings ever recorded. But Democrats took heart from the converse: The wins by Warner and McGreevey suggested that Bush”s astronomical ratings offer no guarantee of success for Republicans next year.

Bush “didn”t have coattails before (in 2000) and he doesn”t have coattails now,” McAuliffe said last night.

Bush did not campaign in either state, though he signed letters and recorded automated telephone calls for the two GOP candidates.

Both McGreevey and Warner are comeback winners. McGreevey narrowly lost the New Jersey gubernatorial race four years ago to Christie Whitman, now head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Warner, a former Virginia Democratic Party chair who made a fortune as a venture capitalist, lost to Republican John Warner in the 1996 senatorial contest.

The twin victories give the Democrats 21 governors the GOP has 27, and there are two independents. That is the highest number of governorships the Democrats have held since 1994.

In next year”s midterm election, voters will choose governors in 36 states, along with 34 senators and all 435 members of the House of Representatives.

In both New Jersey and Virginia, the candidates struggled to catch the attention of a thoroughly distracted electorate.

But even in a more conventional environment, these first races have been an imperfect predictor of voter intentions in the larger midterm elections that follow the next year. In 1993, a GOP sweep of the two gubernatorial contests, as well as of the New York and Los Angeles mayoral races, presaged the party landslide in 1994. But Republicans swept all four contests again in 1997 and lost ground in the House and gubernatorial races the next year.

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