Off-Year Elections And Sept. 11

In her latest Political Points commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch assesses the impact of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on off-year elections.
On Thursday night, Vice President Dick Cheney “came out of his cave” to substitute for President Bush at a Washington fundraiser sponsored by the Republican Governors' Association.

The RGA event was put on the books to give a big boost to Republican campaigns for governor this year, and Mr. Bush was expected to give a stem-winder of a political speech. Instead, it was Cheney who spoke, and his words were of al-Qaida cells, anthrax and terrorism - not education, energy and Republican politics.

On November 6, there are elections for governor in two states, New Jersey and Virginia, and for mayor in hundreds of cities including New York. Most candidates were all set with their post-Labor Day game plans until terror struck and turned the political world upside down. Or did it?

Interviews with Democratic and Republican strategists involved with these campaigns say that while September 11 has had an impact, most of the issues already on the table on September 10 are the issues dominating the close of the campaigns.

The exception, of course, is New York City, where Republican Michael Bloomberg is running a mega-million dollar TV campaign on his ability to rebuild the city. But even in New York, basic issues of jobs, the economy and crime are still in play. Throughout the country, economic anxiety has increased markedly in the past two month and public safety and security have taken on new meaning.

All of the campaigns pulled their paid ads in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Mark Earley, the Republican candidate from Virginia was the first back on the air a week later, and both he and Democratic challenger Mark Warner did perfunctory ads alluding to September 11. But soon afterwards they went back to their original game plans.

In New Jersey, Republican Brett Schundler resumed his ad campaign with a spot featuring Mr. Bush with rescue workers including firefighters and policemen. The ad backfired, however, when New Jersey firefighters (who just happened to have endorsed Democrat Jim McGreevey) blasted Schundler for “exploiting the tragedy.”

Schundler, who had already gotten into hot water for calling the press and blasting the Republican governor's handling of the emergency, pulled the ad. Advisers for his campaign admit frankly that Schundler has been struggling to get people to pay attention with to his campaign.

One adviser said: “He's been hit with a double whammy, first September 11 and now the Yankees.” New Jersey has virtually no statewide television of its own and more than half the state relies on New York media. Over 700 New Jersey residents were killed in the WTC catastrophe and the personal toll on the state has been tremendous.

Schundler has alo had financial troubles emanating in part from his squabbling with his own state party. As a result, he hasn’t been able to do the heavy media which might have enabled him to refocus attention on him and his campaign. As of September 30, McGreevey and the New Jersey Democratic Party had out-raised the Republicans $21million to $9 million.

In Virginia, consultants say voters aren’t quite so diverted and the candidates both say that the issues they started with are the ones which are still working for them. Warner's campaign has found that voters believe that “the way to make Virginia strong” is to invest in education and vocational training rather than in activities related to terrorism.

Strategists for both campaigns have pointed to the increase in economic anxiety and both campaigns have messages geared toward this. Earley's campaign is stressing tax cuts as the best way to stimulate the economy. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says however, that in light of the increased belief in the role of government post September 11, the tax issue “rings hollow.” The Warner campaign believes that his plan to clean up the budget mess in Richmond and get the Virginia economy moving again are trumping the tax issue.

Mr. Bush, whose ratings are sky high, has been deliberately low-profile in these races. As a result, Republican candidates are not expecting much benefit from his coattails. In Virginia there are brochures and mailings featuring pictures taken prior to September 11 of Earley with Mr. Bush, but they plan no TV ads featuring the president. The Warner campaign says that its polling showed than an endorsement by the police and firefighters was more important to voters than one by the president, and Warner has been using them heavily in his TV ads.

All the campaigns have used heavy patriotic symbols, but most say subtle references to September 11 are more appropriate than overt ones. Anne Kincaid, strategist for Mark Earley says that ads stressing Earley’s experience and calm, comforting demeanor, couched as qualities needed “now more than ever” conveys the message clearly.

One candidate who tried to use a patriotic symbol found he had strayed quite a bit over line. Republican David Dewhirst, running for lieutenant governor in Texas, chose a soldier in uniform against an American flag urging readers to support the “brave men and women of our armed forces.” Unfortunately, it was a German soldier bearing a military insignia and name tag which carry the German flag. The campaign manager blames the graphics consultant, but no one caught it until the ad, in this month’s Texas Monthly, hit the stands.

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