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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Table-Setting in New Jersey and Virginia

For the serious political junkie, off-year gubernatorial elections are the proverbial oasis in the desert: critical sustenance between the Big Events of even-year national contests for president and Congress. In the chattering classes, unsurprisingly, there’s a strong tendency to treat these state elections as national bellwethers or referenda on the party in power in Washington. That tendency is particularly strong with respect to the two states holding gubernatorial elections this year, New Jersey and Virginia, since the party controlling the White House hasn’t won a governorship in either state in the last twenty years.
Now maybe it’s because I have a background in state politics and government, but I’m very dubious about the proposition that voters in any particular place vote the way they do, not in order to choose their state elected officials, but instead in order to educate and entertain people in the other 49 states, or to send smoke signals to Washington. And in fact, I have a long post up over at 538.com questioning the predictive value of the “White-House-backlash” theory about New Jersey and Virginia, concluding that it’s probably not very strong.
But still, there will be an enormous amount of national attention paid to the gubernatorial races this year, and it currently looks like both will be highly competitive.
Yesterday New Jersey Republicans chose the candidate that national Republicans strongly favored, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, as the nominee to face incumbent Democratic Governor Jon Corzine. Christie won a low-turnout primary by 55-42 over a “movement conservative” candidate, Steve Lonegan, and has consistently led Corzine in the polls by a significant but not large margin. He has one of those corruption-fighting “reform” resumes that Republicans love in an anti-incumbent atmosphere, particularly in a Democratic-leaning state like New Jersey where most of the issues don’t really favor them. But Corzine is, as you may know, very rich, and has yet to lose an election; he is already tying Christie to the less-than-popular national GOP. There’s also a recent history in New Jersey of Democrats seeming to get all the breaks down the stretch in competitive contests. Former Gov. Christie Whitman is the only GOPer to win a gubernatorial or Senate race there since the Reagan administration.
Next week Virginia Democrats will hold a gubernatorial primary, and this one is looking to be a barnburner involving state senator Creigh Deeds, former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe, and former state rep. Brian Moran. Moran led in early polls, but a couple of months ago, McAuliffe, who raised more cash than his rivals combined, surged into what looked like an insurmountable lead. Just in the last week, several polls have come out showing a very close three-way race: SurveyUSA still had McAuliffe ahead; PPP had Deeds (who was recent endorsed by theWashington Post) surging in to the lead, and one (from GQR for Moran’s campaign) had Moran back up.
There’s still a week to go, with the undecided vote still pretty high, and lots of television ads still to run. Moreover, since a low turnout is expected, the campaigns’ ground game will be important. Almost anything could happen. All three Democrats trail Republican Attorney General Bob McDonnell in the polls. But recent demographic trends are favorable to Democrats, and McDonnell has some pretty wacky friends in the Religious Right with whom swing voters, particularly in vote-rich NoVa, may not be comfortable.
So political junkie or not, you should stay tuned to these two contests. It could be a wild ride to November. And if Democrats win either of these races, we can finally lay to rest the axiom that the party controlling the White House
is doomed to defeat in off-year elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

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