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Molinari's Departures Leaves Opening For Dems

Without Edgar, Illinois GOP politics is in flux

By Stuart Rothenberg

New York 13 Susan Molinari's decision to leave the House of Representatives for television news gives the Democrats an opportunity to avenge a New Mexico special election loss earlier this year. A loss wouldn't be damaging to them since the seat has been held by a Republican, while a win would be regarded as an upset that they could turn into a public relations bonanza.

The Democratic candidate for the November special election is Eric Vitaliano, a 49-year old state assemblyman. Vitaliano calls himself "independent," and stresses his relatively conservative views on abortion (he's generally pro-life), the death penalty (he's for it) and taxes (he's opposed to them). He is also a close ally of organized labor, and criticizes Newt Gingrich and the Republicans for pursuing the "politics of greed."

Vitaliano criticizes his GOP opponent, New York City Council member Vito Fossella, 32, as a political lightweight who hasn't accomplished much in political life and owes his political success to his good looks and connections to Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, Susan's father.

Like his Democratic congressional adversary, Fossella represents about a third of Staten Island. But while Vitaliano represents the northern part of the island, Fossella's district covers the southern part of the borough.

Fossella, who was once pro-choice and a Democrat, is now a pro-life Republican. He will also run on the Conservative Party and Right to Life Party lines, a significant problem for Vitaliano, who has been supported by both minor parties in the past. Those endorsements may make it more difficult for Vitaliano to position himself as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat.

While Vitaliano attacks Fossella as a lightweight, the Republican turns around the charge, arguing that he is the more energetic, change-oriented candidate. And Fossella has already combed through Vitaliano's legislative record and begun to attack him as a liberal who has supported higher taxes.

Vitaliano is a good candidate, but Fossella has an advantage from his party endorsements. And he could well benefit from the New York City mayoral election, which takes place at the same time as the congressional special election. That's because GOP Mayor Rudy Giuliani will be a huge favorite over his Democratic opponent. Right now, Manhattan borough president Ruth Messinger is expected to carry the Democratic banner for mayor in the fall, and her reputation as a limousine liberal could well be disastrous in conservative, middle-class Staten Island, as well as in the portion of Brooklyn that makes up the 13th C.D. Staten Island Republicans have already begun to talk about the Messinger-Vitaliano team versus the Giuliani-Fossella team.

Vitaliano has the support of a number of large local unions, and national Democratic operatives are certain to make sure that he has the financial resources to run a credible campaign. But Fossella will also have the money he needs.

This race could easily go down to the wire, with both parties spending heavily on "party-building" activities aimed at winning the congressional race. If Vitaliano is the better candidate, Fossella clearly is credible, and he has assets that the Democrat lacks. That's why Fossella has the advantage in a race that bears watching.

Illinois Senate, Governor Races

Gov. Jim Edgar's decision to drop out of politics is a blow to Republicans. Even if most of them expected him to pass up a Senate challenge to Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun, most of them assumed that the popular two-term governor would seek a third term, all but guaranteeing continued GOP control of the governor's office.

Without Edgar, the GOP's grip on the governorship looks much weaker, and state Republican politics seem in flux.

The front-runner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination appears to be Sec. of State George Ryan, a Republican loyalist who has been kicking around state politics for years. But other ambitious Republicans could enter that contest, and Ryan, while a seemingly dependable and uncontroversial political veteran, could be vulnerable in the general election to a younger Democrat with a message of change.

Edgar's exit from the Senate race no doubt drew a sigh of relief from state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, who has been in the GOP contest for months. But Edgar's announcement also brought with it a virtual Senate endorsement for Attorney General Jim Ryan, a highly regarded conservative who would be both a formidable candidate for the GOP nomination and a tough opponent for Moseley-Braun. One of the big question marks surrounding Ryan, however, is his health. He is continuing to receive treatment for cancer, and while his prognosis appears to be good, voters might be nervous about sending someone to Washington with Ryan's medical history.

A number of Democrats are either in the gubernatorial race or have given every indication that they plan to run, including Rep. Glen Poshard, former Justice Department official John Schmidt, former U.S. attorney John Burns and former Illinois attorney general Roland Burris.

Spotlight Archives:

Pennsylvania's 15th C.D. Looks Competitive (12/09/97)
In Idaho, A Rare Opportunity For Dems (11/19/97)
Stay The Course (11/6/97)
Car-Tax Issue Lifts Gilmore In Virginia (10/23/97)
New Jersey Governor's Race Down To The Wire (10/9/97)
Idaho Scramble: Who's Running For What? (9/25/97)
Hawaii's 1st C.D. Looks Like A Powder Keg (9/10/97)
Molinari's Departures Leaves Opening For Dems (8/25/97)
Georgia Governor's Race A Free-For-All (8/12/97)
Rep. Jon Fox Faces A One-Two Punch (7/30/97)
Sen. Hollings Prepares For A Fifth Term (7/22/97)
The House: Looking Ahead To 1998 (7/15/97)
Sen. Bond Has Re-election Edge (7/7/97)
Bumpers' Decision Encourages GOP (7/3/97)
Kentucky Senatorial Race A Toss-Up (6/24/97)
Nevada's Senator Reid Looks Like An Early Favorite (6/17/97)
1998 Gubernatorial Ratings (6/17/97)
Indiana's Evan Bayh Could Reclaim His Father's Old Senate Seat (6/3/97)
Who Will Control The House After '98? (5/30/97)
New Mexico's 3rd District: Color It Republican Green (5/20/97)
Don't Look For Many Senate Retirements In '98 (5/13/97)
Louisiana Senate, 1996: It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over (5/5/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Re-election Ratings (4/25/97)
Dem, GOP Tests In Connecticut, Arizona (4/9/97)
Don't Count Al D'Amato Out Yet (3/25/97)
Whitman A Favorite In New Jersey (2/25/97)
Sen. Boxer Could Be Vulnerable (2/11/97)
Impressive Bloodlines In Minnesota Governor's Race (1/28/97)
Looking Ahead To '98 Gubernatorial Races In California, Florida (1/23/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Ratings (1/23/97)
Family Feud: The Fight for RNC Chairman (1/10/97)

Spotlight 1996

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