Only Virginia and New Jersey chose a governor last year. Many experts insist the results offer clues to the 2016 presidential race. Time will tell. But the two short months since the 2013 elections do clearly provide some insights.
1. Virginia’s smart one-term rule
The commonwealth is the only state to prohibit a governor from seeking reelection. Political scientists pan it. But Virginia’s one-term limit makes good governing sense. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s growing problems are the latest proof. His aides retaliated against a small-town mayor for not backing the boss’s reelection. They created dangerous, hours-long traffic jams for residents and commuters traveling to New York City. Reelection politics now threaten to cripple Christie’s second term at the outset. Allowing the chief executive to govern full time better serves the public interest.
2. State campaign finance laws need fixing fast
Garden State law strictly limits gubernatorial campaign spending. Virginia, in contrast, has no limits. But the Supreme Court decision in Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission gutted New Jersey’s law, permitting independent groups to spend unlimited sums to influence the outcome with little transparency. The result is outside groups are increasingly able to influence elections. A constitutional fix for this must be found.
3. 50 percent is no longer the magic number.
Christie in 2009 and now Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2013 got less than 50 percent of the vote. Political scientists claim getting under 50 percent hampers a new governor. It didn’t hurt Christie, nor Mills Godwin, the last Virginia Governor to win (1965) without a majority, McAuliffe won all the power he needs to govern effectively.
4. Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right
“Events are in the saddle and ride mankind” is a line generally attributed to America’s great essayist. Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath forced Republican Christie to partner with Democratic President Barack Obama. This boosted Christie’s image. But “bridge-gate” may destroy it all. This underscores how real events, not public relations, define gubernatorial images.
5. Politics is partisan
McAuliffe and Christie won office as strong partisans. Their politics will not change. Citizens tolerate partisanship provided it doesn’t block problem-solving. Christie is learning this the hard way. McAuliffe should take note.
6. Machiavelli is wrong
The legendary political philosopher believed punishment was the best motivator. Christie seems to agree. We believe hope provides better results than fear. And as political slogans go, “hope” works – just ask Bill Clinton.
7. The middle-class squeeze is growing more acute
Christie’s working-class image appealed to middle-class voters buffeted by worries about jobs, the economy and a sputtering educational system. Virginia voters have similar concerns. Both McAuliffe and his opponent, Ken Cuccinelli II, were, like Christie, middle-class Catholic kids. But unlike Christie, their policies and images had little middle-class appeal. Virginia politicians especially need to take note.
8. Education is emerging as the big Virginia issue
The Republican Christie’s education reforms met approval in Democratic New Jersey. But last year in Virginia, Democrats agreed with Virginia Republicans, taking $2 billion in education money and using it instead to help pay for Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation plan. This isn’t reform. Education didn’t figure prominently in last year’s gubernatorial race for the first time since 1981. It’s a big issue looking for a champion in Richmond.
9. National politics won’t help in 2014
The national spotlight seduced Christie. His should have been concentrating on New Jersey in 2014. Next year will be here soon enough. McAuliffe can learn from this mistake by making sure Virginians know their concerns are his only priority this year.
10. Learn from Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt
Elected office is a gift, not a given. If Christie loses a presidential bid, history says he isn’t likely to hold future elected office. McAuliffe holds Washington ambitions. But two, relatively popular Democrats occupy Virginia’s Senate seats. As the hit movie advises, this is likely “As Good As It Gets.”
Norman Leahy is an editor of the conservative Web site BearingDrift.com and producer of the political radio show “The Score.” Paul Goldman is a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. They are blogging together on All Opinions Are Local during Virginia’s 2014 General Assembly session.