WASHINGTON -- Former state Attorney General James S. Gilmore III led a historic Republican landslide yesterday to win the governorship of Virginia.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman struggled to gain re-election against a stronger-than-expected challenge from Democrat James E. McGreevey.
Those looking for a message in this fall's voting could find it in the issues that dominated in both states: voter anger over rising local property taxes and the high cost of owning a car.
Based on nearly complete returns, Gilmore received 56 percent of the vote in Virginia, far outdistancing Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr., with 42 percent. Gilmore will succeed Republican Gov. George F. Allen, who was barred by law from seeking re-election.
In New Jersey, with 96 percent of the vote counted, Whitman was leading by 7,000 votes over McGreevey, an energetic state senator and mayor of Woodbridge who contrasted his working-class background with the wealthy governor's privileged upbringing. The Republican's margin was 47 percent to 46 percent.
As Republicans had feared, the race was closer than expected because of Libertarian candidate Murray Sabrin, who drew support from conservatives enraged by Whitman's veto of a ban on late-term abortions. Sabrin, a college professor who got more than 100,000 votes, or 5 percent of the total, boasted last night that he had made "an enormous impact" on the election.
Whitman, the Republican Party's most prominent elected female official, saw her future prospects damaged by yesterday's balloting. Though her support for abortion rights puts her at odds with Republican conservatives, she has often been mentioned as a possible presidential or vice-presidential candidate in 2000.
But Whitman's disappointing showing in her re-election campaign could reinforce the view of critics who saw her 1993 upset victory more as a political fluke than an indication of future stardom.
Late in this fall's race, Whitman was forced to acknowledge that, as governor, she had failed to pay sufficient attention to high local property taxes and auto insurance rates, issues that McGreevey made the centerpiece of his campaign.
Whitman's potential strength among female voters was seen as her greatest asset in a party that has watched its gender gap between men and women grow wider in recent years. And yesterday, exit polls showed her receiving a larger share of the women's vote than McGreevey.
But that advantage was at least partly neutralized by her vulnerability on the abortion issue.
For years, New Jersey has had the nation's highest auto insurance rates, and Whitman confessed she had not done enough to restrain them during her first term. McGreevey held a solid advantage, 57 percent to 39 percent, among the many voters who considered car insurance a very important issue, the exit polls showed.
Whitman was also on the defensive over taxes, because of a widely held belief that the state income tax cut she pushed through early in her term had led to higher local property taxes. Interviews with voters yesterday found that Whitman's tax cut had given her no real advantage.
In Virginia, meanwhile, Gilmore's triumph sent shock waves through the Democratic establishment.
GOP candidates appeared headed for victory in races for the top three offices in the Old Dominion for the first time in at least 100 years. In the biggest upset of the night, John H. Hager, a former tobacco company executive who has polio and campaigned in a wheelchair, upset former Democratic U.S. Rep. L. F. Payne Jr. in the race for lieutenant governor, giving Republicans effective control of the state Senate.
The Republican sweep was fueled by Gilmore's "no car tax" slogan, which tapped a deep pool of public resentment over personal property taxes on cars and trucks. His pledge to virtually eliminate the hated tax became the dominant issue in the closing month of the campaign.
In his victory speech last night, Gilmore put the state legislature on notice that he would "immediately move to eliminate the personal property tax on cars and trucks."
Gilmore, 48, the son of a Safeway grocery store manager who went on to become a prosecutor in the Richmond suburbs, stepped down as attorney general in June to devote full time to campaigning.
On a conciliatory note last night, he said that "the day is past" for pitting one region or race in Virginia against another.
"Everyone has a seat at the table in the future of this state," he said, to cheers from supporters at a Richmond hotel.
The national Republican Party dumped more than $3 million into the off-year contests, far outspending the debt-ridden Democrats.
In Virginia, $1 million in last-minute Republican money was directed primarily toward the lieutenant governor and attorney general contests, in an attempt to produce a first-ever GOP sweep in the state.
The Republican tide in Virginia represented a victory for religious conservatives, who strongly backed Gilmore and state Sen. Mark L. Earley of Chesapeake, the victorious candidate for attorney general.
"Mission accomplished," declared Christian Coalition director Randy Tate in an election-night statement.
Pub Date: 11/05/97