November 8, 2005
Blending The Red And Blue

By John Avlon

Election 2005 is upon us, and not only in New York City. There are highly competitive races in neighboring New Jersey and Virginia, while states such as California and Ohio are voting on ballot referendums that would bring redistricting reform.

Amid an avalanche of campaign money and attack ads, it is easy to miss the real story - partisan fights may be hitting a fever pitch, but a popular backlash is brewing. Electorates are growing less predictable in their politics and the red state-blue state divide is beginning to be exposed as overly simplistic.

Perhaps the best example is the one closest to home. With the possible exception of San Francisco, no city in America has been more crudely caricatured as knee-jerk liberal than New York. But when New York seems poised to vote for a Republican mayor for the fourth consecutive election - by what might be an historic margin - the old labels no longer fit.

The mayor's cruise toward reelection indicates not only the strength of his record in office and the success of his centrist campaign strategy, but also the power of unlimited campaign cash. Extensive outreach to immigrant communities in native language ads, as well as ads featuring testimonials of support from celebrity Democrats in a seven month blanketing of the airwaves have transformed a mayor who had not been able to exceed 50% job approval rating during his first three years in office into the overwhelmingly favored candidate across ethnic, religious, and political grounds. This looming landslide has taken shape with surprising civility.

In contrast, the election in New Jersey has sunk to new depths of sleaze and negative attack ads. Multi-millionaires Jon Corzine and Douglas Forrester have adopted a scorched earth policy focusing on personal attacks in the final days of the campaign, fueled by an estimated $75 million. While Mr. Corzine once commanded a significant lead in the polls, his party's association with local corruption scandals and the disgraced former governor, James Mc-Greevey, created an opening for the Republican, Mr. Forrester. Many of Mr. Forrester's ads, like Mr. Bloomberg's, focused on testimonials from disaffected Democrats declaring their intention to vote Republican for reform. These have been "balanced" with attack ads that have driven Mr. Corzine's negative ratings up, as news of his romantic and financial relationship with a local labor leader, Carla Katz, came to light. In recent days, allegations of affairs have been traded between the campaigns and an unusually harsh if revealing ad was released by the Forrester camp in which Mr. Corzine's ex-wife is quoted as saying that her ex-husband "let his family down and he'll probably let New Jersey down, too."

The swamp-fest that is New Jersey politics has gotten improbably worse and the next governor's moral authority and ability to lead will be deeply compromised. Somewhere the ghost of Richard Nixon - who spent the last decade of his life living in Basking Ridge, New Jersey - might be smiling at the ruthless political combat, but he would just as surely shake his head at the senselessness of the civic destruction.

New Jersey is a "purple" swing state in which both parties are competitive. This retreat from predictable partisanship is also extending into Virginia, where an improbably close race is pitting a Republican attorney general, Jerry Kilgore, against a Democratic lieutenant governor, Timothy Kaine. The campaign is being seen as both a referendum on the popular term-limited Democratic governor, Mark Warner, and a barometer of President Bush's weakening support even in his base states. One year ago, President Bush was re-elected and hailed as a conquering hero of the GOP. This year, Republican strategists were wringing their hands as to whether a visit from the president for a campaign fundraiser would help or hurt their candidate's chances. If President Bush is a polarizing figure in Virginia, the GOP has got plenty of thinking to do between now and next year's mid-term election.

Another sign of challenge to assumptions of privilege by a state's prevailing political party is evident in California and Ohio, where redistricting reform referendums have made their way onto the ballot. In California, Arnold Schwarzenegger's current unpopularity is being exploited by Sacramento Democrats who want to protect their incumbency, even as groups such as the Democratic Leadership Council caution that "Schwarzenegger is right about the problem, and California Democrats would be wrong to oppose the very idea of redistricting reform as a GOP plot." In Ohio, it is the Republicans who control most statewide offices and it is they who are bitterly fighting to get redistricting reform rejected. The commonality of these two actions by opposite parties shows that self interest is their primary motivating force, not the fundamental openness or fairness of our democracy. Voters are beginning to reject the influence of incumbent parties, and this trend will have significant implications for 2006 and 2008.

Do the math: New York City looks poised to vote for a Republican mayor for the fourth consecutive election; New Jersey and Virginia are not written off as solid blue states or red states, but instead see highly competitive elections; and voters in delegate-rich states such as California and Ohio are fighting for redistricting reform against the desperate objections of their states' incumbent parties. It all adds up to the beginning rumbles of a realignment in American politics. The false edifice of the red state, blue state divide is beginning to crumble as voters challenge their states' stale and often corrupt status quo. The message that voters are sending is remarkably comforting in its common sense: we do not live in red states or blue states but in the United States. Faced with the bottom-line accountability of elections, maybe Washington insiders will begin to take notice.

John Avlon is a columnist for the New York Sun and the author
of Independent Nation.

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