Twenty-four hours is a long time in the life of a politician, my editor, Richard Harwood, used to remind his reporters at The Washington Post. Two weeks is a political eternity, so there will be no predictions here about the outcomes of next month’s mud-spattered elections for governor in New Jersey and Virginia. The one forecast that can be made with reasonable certainty is that the winners will interpret the results as a referendum on the Obama administration and as harbingers of the 2010 midterm elections, while the losers will downplay any national significance.
Portents or not, these elections should offer a useful window into the mood of the electorate. Multitudinous polls show that Americans are discouraged over the slow pace of economic recovery and anxious about the long war in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama nonetheless still commands the support of most Democrats and of a dwindling plurality of independents. As with many of his predecessors in their first year in office, Obama is more popular than his policies. But he will not be on the ballot in either 2009 or 2010, and Democratic candidates will be saddled with the perceived downsides of his policies without the magic of his name.
Republicans meanwhile can postpone facing their largest liability: the lack of a compelling national candidate who can unify the party and lead it back to the White House.
Otherwise, it’s hardly gloom and doom for the Republicans, who in the wake of the 2008 Obama landslide seemed poised to go the way of the Whigs. In Congress, Republicans traditionally do better as the party of opposition, perhaps because they had so much practice in the last century. After getting thumped in the 2006 and 2008 congressional elections, the Republicans regrouped and formed an almost united front against the administration’s stimulus package and an array of Democratic health-care bills. Republicans also received a boost from the excessive optimism of Obama’s economic team, which saw “green shoots” of recovery sprouting everywhere as the nation headed relentlessly toward double-digit unemployment.
But even with a faster-paced recovery, the off-year elections would be a slog for the Democrats because the electorates that participate in them are different from the one that propelled Obama into power. As astute political analyst Charlie Cook has noted, “older voters dominate midterms and have consistently been Obama’s weakest age group.” Voters over 45 comprised 53 percent of the electorate in 2004 and 53 percent in 2008, both presidential election years. In the midterm election of 2006 they were 63 percent of all voters. That’s not the fault of old folks. It’s because younger voters, who overwhelmingly favored Obama, turn out in smaller numbers when the presidency is not at stake. Further, writes Cook, “Diminished turnout on the part of African-American and Hispanic voters ... looks like a double whammy for Democrats.”
The older, off-year electorate gave Republicans an opening in 1994, two years after Bill Clinton won the White House. Led by then-Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and congressional Republicans’ Contract With America, the GOP cashed in on its opportunity, captured the House of Representatives, and kept control for the next 12 years.
The harbingers of the 1994 coup were New Jersey and Virginia, which elected Republican governors in 1993. But it doesn’t always work this way. Both states elected Democratic governors in 2003, a year before President George W. Bush handily won re-election. Tim Storey, political analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, says he is “skeptical of the value of these two states as harbingers for 2010.”
This time around, the accumulated grievances of incumbency have hurt Democrats in both New Jersey and Virginia, two states with distinctive political cultures. Although Virginia usually gets high marks for good government, its archaic one-term limitation on a governor creates a continual political flux. Republican Bob McDonnell, a former state legislator and state attorney general, had a free ride for his party’s nomination. The Democrat, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, who narrowly lost to McDonnell in the 2005 attorney general’s race, won a three-way primary in which he defeated favored Terry McAullife, a well-known Democratic Party fundraiser.
The Democrats then unearthed a graduate thesis McDonnell had written 20 years ago in which he extolled the family and said government in its tax policies should discriminate against “cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators” in favor of married couples. McDonnell says he has changed his views, but the Democrats have mobilized women with a series of television ads in which they present the opinions of McDonnell’s thesis as if they were written yesterday. This strategy cut into McDonnell’s early lead. Then, in Cook’s words, Deeds “stepped on his momentum.” Meeting with reporters after a debate, Deeds was asked about a previous promise not to raise taxes. He fumbled the answer but seemed to acknowledge that new taxes might be needed for transportation, a key issue in Virginia. Republicans pounced. Their television commercials have exploited Deeds’ incoherence by portraying him as a tax-and-spend politician, and an indecisive one at that. By mid-October, McDonnell led by 8 to 11 points in four polls tracked by RealClearPolitics. Deeds also has a curious historical handicap: in every gubernatorial election since 1977, the election of a president of one party has been followed by the election of a Virginia governor from the other party.
In New Jersey, embattled Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine has struggled to overcome a troubled economy and low approval ratings. The Republican challenger in this normally Democratic state is Chris Christie, who as U.S. attorney for Newark obtained 130 convictions without a loss. His record as a prosecutor is more impressive than his record as a campaigner — three defeats in four tries for lesser offices — or, the Corzine camp would say, his record as a driver. Corzine, who made more than $300 million in the higher ranks of Goldman Sachs, has spent record amounts to publicize such Christie lapses as a 2002 incident in which he turned the wrong-way on a one-way street and collided with a motorcyclist. This seems an odd line of attack from a governor who was nearly killed two years ago in an accident caused by his own speeding driver; Corzine was blithely not bothering to wear a seat belt.
But Corzine has gained traction from a discovery of his focus groups that some voters are uncomfortable with Christie because he is overweight. The Corzine camp has since been waging what Patrick Murray, director of The Polling Institute at Monmouth University, calls “a subliminal campaign” to portray Christie as fat. It may be subliminal but there’s nothing subtle about the metaphors of Corzine’s commercials, one of which alleges that Christie “threw his weight around” as prosecutor. These attacks, Christie’s unwillingness to provide specifics about his policies, and Corzine’s unlimited resources — he has outspent his opponent 4-to-1 — have turned the race into a dead heat.
Another factor is the emergence of independent candidate Chris Daggett, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. Daggett alone has addressed what many New Jersey homeowners see as the state’s most pressing problem — its soaring local property taxes. He proposes to reduce property taxes $2,500 a homeowner if municipalities keep spending in line. Daggett has won the endorsement of The Star-Ledger in Newark, the state’s most influential newspaper, which editorialized: “Only by breaking the hold of the Democratic and Republican mandarins on the governor’s office and putting a rein on their power will the state have any hope for the kind of change needed to halt its downward economic, political and ethical spiral.” Murray gives Daggett little chance but the pollster says he could hurt Christie by giving anti-Corzine voters another alternative.
Both New Jersey and Virginia also will be electing lower houses of their legislatures. In New Jersey, Democrats hold a 48-32 lead in the Assembly. In the Virginia House of Delegates, Republicans have the upper hand 53-45, with one independent and one vacancy. Storey of the NCSL thinks the Republicans may make small gains but doubts the balance of power will change.
Small gains this year may be enough for the Republican Party, as it strives to get its act together for the 2010 midterm elections, in which it may have an outside chance of regaining the House. It’s no mystery why Obama is trying to get so much done in his first year of office. He may not have the votes to do it if he waits.
— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.