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Weekly Alibi Off-Year 1997 Elections Predict '98

Looking into the 1998 campaign crystal ball, I see republicans and Udall.

By Jack Moczinski

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  Republicans swept the off-year elections three weeks ago. Among the contested races were 250 mayoral seats, the Virginia and New Jersey governors, a Staten Island, N.Y., congressional seat and numerous propositions. Political pundits put a lot of merit in the importance of these off-year races as an indication of who will have success in the next election year. In 1991, a special election put underdog Harris Wofford in Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate seat. At that time, that Democrat's surprise victory marked the end of Bush's post-Gulf War afterglow and showed that he was vulnerable coming into the 1992 presidential race. Here are some interesting trends emerging from the 1997 elections:

1.) Irritant issues: With a good economy and no big problems to face like war, recession or social upheaval, politicians are trying to appeal to voters by bringing up so-called irritant issues. In the New Jersey governor's race, it was the enormous car insurance rates. In Virginia, it was the state's car tax. If I ran in New Mexico in 1998, I would run against the recent PNM rate hikes with the following slogan: Vote for the Polish Prince and Punish PNM. I can feel it ... it's a winner!

2.) Incumbents win: Across the board, incumbents did very well in 1997. Republican mayors were re-elected in un-Republican areas such as Minneapolis and New York. After a scare from her Democratic opponent, Christie Todd Whitman won re-election as governor of New Jersey. Clearly, when voters have little to complain about, incumbents will win.

3.) The money game: The National Democratic Party is broke and up to its ears in debt. Although the Republican Congress tried to put out the perception that the Democrats and the president were rolling in the dough last election, in reality the Republicans outspent the Democrats across the board. By throwing the money issue on the Democrats with the Republican Congress fundraising hearings, donations have dried up for the Dems while the GOP's fundraising operation remains intact. The Republicans poured money into the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races like so much gravy, while employees at the Democratic National Committee headquarters were looking in their couches for loose change. Republicans will have a solid money advantage going into the 1998 elections.

This all bodes well for New Mexico Republicans. Their national party boasts about dumping money into New Mexico in 1998. Gov. Gary Johnson, Congressman Steve Schiff and Congressman Joe Skeen might remain in office as long as they play it cool and ride the wave of economic prosperity. The Democratic legislature, however, does not look good. Voters understand that legislators are the ones who address those petty, local, irritant issues. People's financial situations are good, but they could still be angry about the local crime problem or the broken stop sign on the corner. They'll take out their frustrations on incumbent legislators. In 1998, we could see a Republican State House.

Udall Positions Himself:

Recently, Attorney General Tom Udall sent a letter to the Democratic faithful, letting them know that he is looking at running for Congress in the 3rd Congressional District. The seat is currently held by Republican Bill Redmond and formerly held by U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson.

In his letter, Udall included a poll he took in June of 1997. Even though it came from his campaign and could be slightly biased, the numbers are impressive and from a reputable pollster. In the Democratic primary trial heat, Tom Udall gains 43 percent of those polled, and his main Democratic opponent, Corporation Commissioner Eric Serna, gets 16 percent (32 percent of voters remain undecided). More interesting than these results, though, are the numbers testing the candidates' name recognition and their favorability among voters.

Udall was recognized by 92 percent of those surveyed, while Congressman Redmond only scored 87 percent. Udall also received a positive rating from 54 percent of voters. Redmond and Serna were far behind with 27 percent each. Finally, and most importantly, was the negative impression voters had of Eric Serna and Bill Redmond. Those having a negative impression of Serna were 33 percent of the sample, while 27 percent had a negative impression of Redmond. (Udall had only 13 percent.) This is bad news for Redmond and Serna. Once a voter has a negative impression of you, it is very hard to turn that around to a positive. Redmond and Serna have a tough road ahead of them.

This is all an effort by the Udall campaign to set Udall apart as the clear front-runner. By doing this, Udall may scare other Democrats out of the race and come out of the primary as the obvious winner. Udall is clearly trying to promote himself as the only Democrat who can beat Redmond. It's only one year from the 1998 elections, and already the battle lines are being drawn.

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