New York's Test for Republicans

By Rob Richie
October 30, 1998

   This Tuesday's special election for Susan Molinari's former House seat in New York City has been touted as a bellwether for the 1998 congressional elections. More precisely, it could be the death knell of the moderate Republicanism of the northeast at a federal level as surely as the 1990s have seen the near-demise of conservative Democrats in congressional elections in the south.

In 1996, Democrats won 19 of 23 House seats in New England, in the process defeating four of seven Republican House incumbents and holding three of the four Republican winners to less than 51%. President Bill Clinton swept every district, running ahead of his national average in 21 of 23 districts.

Despite this carnage, it could have been worse for Republicans. In New York and New Jersey, Clinton beat Dole in 44 of 46 U.S. House districts, but Democrats won only 26 seats. Although 20 of 21 Republican incumbents there won a lower percentage of the vote than they won in 1994, only two were defeated.

Susan Molinari was one of those victorious incumbents despite significant shifts in her district's electorate. Bill Clinton won 51% of the vote in her district, up from 39% in 1992 -- one of the biggest percentage rises for Clinton in the nation, but a rise that occurred in numerous northeastern districts. Clinton also ran ahead of his national average of 49% in ten other districts in New Jersey and New York that are now held by Republicans. Of the 14 Republicans representing districts where Clinton received at least 52%, four are in New York: Jack Quinn, Rick Lazio, Ben Gilman and Peter King.

Such numbers are significant. Our recent study "Monopoly Politics" revealed that in 1996, Republicans lost all 18 open seats in which Clinton won more than his national average, but took 29 of 35 seats where Clinton ran behind his average. Even in 1994's swing to Republicans, they won only two of the 22 open seats in districts where Clinton ran ahead of his national average in the 1992 presidential race. Voters are far more consistent than we often assume.

What New York's special election may represent, then, is a test of whether northeast Republicans can survive a Republican House majority. The Republican party changed dramatically in the 40 years of Democratic control, but being in a minority meant that so-called "country club" Republicans could distance themselves from some of the more conservative elements of the new populist Republicans of the south and west.

When the Republicans swept into a House majority in 1994 and outspoken conservative Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, northeastern Republicans suddenly had nowhere to hide in federal elections. The conventional wisdom that "all politics is local" is never true for most voters, but is even less true when voters believe national control of Congress is in question.

That's why Democratic candidate Eric Vittaliano in the New York special election constantly links Republican Vito Fossella to Newt Gingrich. And that is why the Republican National Committee is spending at least $750,000 on television advertising in the final weeks of the campaign in an effort to defend a seat that four years ago was considered safely Republican.

No matter what happens this Tuesday, it may well be that Republicans in the northeast are due for more losses in upcoming federal elections until it becomes clear that one party has firm control of the U.S. House. Socially moderate Republicans like George Pataki, Rudy Giuliani, Bill Weld and Christie Whitman may continue to do well in state elections, but the changing nature of their party -- as represented by Republican congressional leaders from the south like Gingrich, Trent Lott, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay -- will probably keep them at home rather than in Washington.

National Republicans may be willing to exchange their remaining seats in the northeast for more seats in the bigger and faster-growing south and west. But that may further move the party to the right, which could have significant repercussions in "swing" areas in the midwest and Pacific Coast. Newt Gingrich's decision to put James Greenwood in the congressional leadership and the RNC's investment in New York this fall may indicate that they recognize what is at stake. It is now up to Staten Island voters to decide whether northeastern Republicans will go the way of the Dixiecrat and the dinosaur.

Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy, a non-partisan organization in Washington, D.C.

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