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Dems Back in the Game | The Nation

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Dems Back in the Game

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"Our Democratic Moses is going to lead us to the promised land," United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts told grizzled coal miners in rural Virginia on the eve of the November 6 elections that restored Democrats to top jobs not only in Virginia but in statehouses and city halls across the country.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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The man Roberts was introducing, high-tech millionaire Mark Warner, was an unlikely Democratic Moses. A self-proclaimed "fiscal conservative" who overwhelmed his Republican foe with $5 million in personal spending and tactical outreach to independents and moderate Republicans, Warner sold himself as the sort of "new economy" Democrat that Al Gore tried so hard to be last year. The difference, of course, is that Warner won a clear victory, making him the first Democrat to secure his state's governorship since George W. Bush's father was President. And Warner won with a campaign that backed abortion rights, opposed celebration of Confederate holidays, embraced unions and called for better pay for public employees. That made him more than enough of a Moses for Cecil Roberts and other Democratic stalwarts--in Virginia and beyond. Shaken by their party's loss of last year's contested presidential election and by Bush's 90 percent approval ratings in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Democrats were looking for a sign that their party was still in the game. And they got it.

Warner's win in Virginia--an Old Confederacy state that trended Republican through the 1990s--came on the same night that Democrats elected a former civil rights lawyer as Virginia's lieutenant governor, retook the New Jersey governorship, upset ten years of Republican control of both houses of the New Jersey legislature, took control of the Washington State House of Representatives and won most major mayoral and county executive contests. Though party chairs always try to spin off-year elections harder than is warranted, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe could stake a legitimate claim to this year's bragging rights. Eight years after Republicans swept off-year contests and then used those victories to push their successful drive to win control of Congress in 1994, Democrats pretty much reversed the trend. "[Republicans] basically said...when they swept these offices that this bodes very badly for the Democratic Party. Well, I can turn around and say the same thing," bragged McAuliffe.

The rare exception is New York City, where Democrat Mark Green lost to billionaire businessman Democrat-turned-Republican Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg won with strong end-of-the-campaign backing from outgoing Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He benefited as well from lingering anger among Latino and African-American voters, who felt Green's primary campaign had played on racial fears.

But Giuliani's coattails did not extend far beyond his city. Virginia and New Jersey Republicans relied heavily on television advertising featuring Giuliani endorsements, to little effect. New Jersey's Jim McGreevey countered with endorsements from police, fire and construction unions, which since September 11 have taken on heroic stature. Virginia's Warner also did something few Democrats have in recent years: He went after rural voters with a vengeance, returning repeatedly even in the critical closing days of the campaign to hard-hit coal-mining, textile and farming regions that Democrats often write off as lost to cultural conservatism. Warner's success in using economic themes to draw small-town and farm-country votes gives new impetus to McAuliffe's efforts to implement a rural strategy, to renew the party's national appeal.

Another new strategy, making use of initiative referendums to break legislative deadlocks on major issues, appears to be paying off for progressives. In Washington, voters overwhelmingly endorsed the highest cigarette tax in the nation to aid healthcare and a labor-backed move to create a "homecare quality authority" that will give expanded bargaining rights to state-paid homecare workers. Portland, Maine, voters endorsed universal healthcare. While it appeared Houston voters would narrowly endorse a measure prohibiting city-paid domestic partner benefits, gay rights backers won referendums in three Michigan cities, and Miami Beach voters said the city should provide city employee benefits to gay domestic partners. In San Francisco, though anthrax scares slowed counting of absentee ballots that will decide a pair of too-close-to-call votes on initiatives to take over local utilities, it appeared that at least one of two proposals was winning. Easily prevailing, however, were two solar-power initiatives designed to provide the policy and funding support for making the city a world leader in development of alternative energy sources.

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