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GOP Looks to Governor's Races for a 1993-Style Pendulum Swing

By Chris Cillizza
Monday, April 20, 2009; A02

Will 2009 be another 1993 for the Republicans?

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, thinks so. Sanford argued in a recent interview that there are "lots of parallels" between the GOP victories in New Jersey and Virginia in the early 1990s and governor's races in those two states this November.

In New Jersey in 1993, Christine Todd Whitman (R) knocked off Gov. Jim Florio (D); in Virginia, former congressman George Allen (R) defeated former state attorney general Mary Sue Terry (D), who began the race as a heavy favorite.

Taxes played a significant role in the Democrats' defeats. Whitman ran hard against the $2.8 billion income tax increase during the Florio administration, while Terry ran away -- unsuccessfully -- from the tax increases during the first year of Bill Clinton's presidency.

Those twin victories were the first stirrings of a Republican revolt against Clinton and the Democratic-controlled Congress that led to the 1994 wave election that saw the GOP claim majorities in the House and Senate.

Sanford -- along with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who will head the RGA next year -- believe a similar set of circumstances is shaping up this fall, with voters ready to send a signal of their distaste for the rapid government expansion in the early days of Barack Obama's presidency.

"These races are going to turn on policy," predicted Barbour, who added that the Republican candidates would be running on lower taxes and less government.

In New Jersey, the RGA has already begun to label Gov. Jon Corzine (D) a tax-raiser -- using his proposed budget to make the case that the Democrat wants to increase taxes by $1 billion. Former U.S. attorney Chris Christie is the likely Republican nominee against Corzine.

The race in Virginia remains largely unformed, as three Democrats -- former Democratic National Committee chairman Terence R. McAuliffe, former state delegate Brian Moran and state Sen. Creigh Deeds -- are competing in the June 9 primary for the right to take on former state attorney general Bob McDonnell (R) in November.

Polling in each race suggests that Republicans are correct to be optimistic. Christie and Corzine are in a virtual dead heat, while McDonnell holds single-digit leads over his potential Democratic opponents.

National polling, however, seems to show that voters are largely pleased with Obama's economic policies. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, six in 10 said that they approved of the job Obama was doing with the economy and 64 percent expressed confidence that his proposals would turn the economy around.

There's no question that what happens in Virginia and New Jersey this fall will be closely scrutinized by strategists for indications of the electorate's mood heading into 2010. Whether those signs point to a repeat of 1993 or a rerun of 2001 (when Democrats won the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia) remains to be seen.

Steering the GOP

Speaking of the (potential) Republican revival, there are any number of politicians seeking to guide the party back into majority status. Here's a top five:

5. Eric Cantor: The Virginia Republican is rapidly emerging as the most influential member of Congress on the GOP side. Over the first 90 days of the Obama administration, Cantor has become the president's lead critic -- not an insignificant task, given the number of ambitious Republicans looking to claim that role. And in conversations with any number of other national politicians -- Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney -- they always mention that they are talking to Cantor on a semi-regular basis. Did we mention that the guy raked in nearly $1 million in the first three months of the year? Impressive on all fronts.

4. Newt Gingrich: Ask Republicans who they think should have a bigger role in the party over the next two years and they name the former House speaker. Gingrich is a man of ideas (not all of them good) for a party sorely lacking in them and also enjoys a national profile that allows him to advocate for where he believes the party needs to go. The big question surrounding Gingrich: Will he spend the next several years using his policy smarts to fuel a presidential run, or will he dedicate his time to reshaping the GOP in a less public role?

3. Mark Sanford: Whether you think the anti-tax tea parties staged last week were a success or a failure, they did reveal that there is a vocal segment in the GOP's conservative base that is fed up with government spending. Sanford is positioned to become the voice of that element. (Sanford told The Fix recently that he stayed up until 12:30 a.m. watching all the tea-party coverage. "I think something is going on out there," he said.) If he can rally that populist rage over the next few months, he could become a very potent force in 2010 and beyond.

2. Haley Barbour: He has two gifts. First, he is beloved by almost everyone in the Republican Party and is regarded broadly as one of the GOP's leading strategic minds. Second, as one of the creators of modern lobbying, Barbour knows he can't run for president -- a position that makes him the perfect neutral arbiter in policy fights in the near term and kingmaker in advance of 2012.

1. Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor is the complete package. A tremendous fundraiser, he also has business credentials that allow him to speak intelligently and forcefully about the economy -- the No. 1 issue for most Americans right now. Romney will move to seize the high ground (from a policy perspective) on health care over the coming months and is likely to be Obama's leading critic when Congress takes up the legislation in the fall. Romney's Achilles' heel: He is still a little too stiff and programmatic. He needs to find the common touch if he wants to stand against Obama in November 2012.

Countdown

2 DAYS: Former New York governor George Pataki (R) speaks in Des Moines as part of the American Future Fund's Conservative Lecture Series.

5 DAYS: Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) headlines his party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Polling has shown that Patrick is in serious danger in his November 2010 reelection bid.

Impolitic

"I feel too many Republicans want to cling to past successes."

-- Meghan McCain, daughter of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), during a speech to Log Cabin Republicans on Saturday

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