By Dan Balz
Sunday, June 7, 2009
Off-year elections rarely predict the future -- except when they do. That's why Democratic and Republican leaders will be closely watching the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and especially Virginia between now and November.
The lineup is almost set. In New Jersey, Republicans have nominated Christopher Christie, an aggressive politician who made a name prosecuting corrupt politicians. He will face off against incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. senator who has had a rocky first term. In Virginia, Republicans have selected former attorney general Bob McDonnell as their nominee.
The last piece will fall into place on Tuesday, when Virginia Democrats pick their nominee after what has turned into a spirited race among three candidates: Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman; state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds; and former delegate Brian Moran.
Recent public polls have shown all three candidates bunched within the margin of error. But the dynamic in the final days has McAuliffe, who had more resources and the early poll lead but no elective experience, fending off a late surge by Deeds, whose candidacy was boosted by the endorsement of the editorial page of this newspaper.
Virginia and New Jersey now have Democratic governors, and both states went for Barack Obama last November. But Democratic leaders expect difficult races. "In both instances, Republicans are fielding good candidates, not candidates who are so extreme they disqualify themselves in the eyes of moderate voters," Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said.
Rendell, chairman of the National Governors Association and himself a former Democratic Party chairman, took the unusual step of intervening in the Virginia primary by endorsing McAuliffe on Friday. Even more telling was the decision by Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer to jump into the race in behalf of McAuliffe. Schweitzer chairs the Democratic Governors Association, an organization whose sole purpose is to elect as many governors as possible.
Out-of-state endorsements generally mean little in political primaries. "If I thought my endorsement would decide the election, I might have pondered it longer," Rendell told me on Friday. "I don't think Virginians are dying to hear what the governor of Pennsylvania has to say."
Schweitzer tried to deflect questions about why he had decided to take sides in a primary, saying he was acting as governor of Montana, not as DGA chairman. But when pressed, he offered this explanation: "Nobody can outwork Terry, and this is going to be a knife fight to the end," he said. "He's got the energy to take this all the way to the end, and when there's a bump in the road, he's not going to cry like a girl and quit."
Whether those endorsements resonate with Virginia voters won't be known until Tuesday night. Deeds told reporters: "If this race is about out-of-state money and out-of-state endorsements, Terry's going to win. If this race is about Virginia, and I think it is . . . I think I'm going to win."
Whatever the outcome, the decisions of Schweitzer and Rendell hint at the significance this year's elections hold for leaders of both parties. When Corzine was nominated for a second term last week, Vice President Biden was at his side. "Barack Obama and Joe Biden are committed to Jon Corzine's reelection," he said. "Period. End of sentence. It's that simple."
At this point, Democrats are wise to worry: Corzine trails Christie in early polls. New Jersey has become a reliably Democratic state in presidential races, and Democrats hold a huge advantage in party registration, but the incumbent's problems give Republicans hope. In Rendell's analysis, Corzine has "the higher hill to climb."
Virginia has been trending Democratic for several elections, led by former governor and now-Sen. Mark Warner, current Gov. Tim Kaine and Sen. James Webb. But it was Obama's victory last November that changed Virginia's national hue from red to purple. Nonetheless, early polls show McDonnell leading all three of his potential rivals.
Gubernatorial elections in the year after a presidential election are unreliable indicators, but in some instances they have foreshadowed problems for the party in the White House.
In 1993, with Bill Clinton in his first year as president, Republicans captured Virginia and New Jersey; a year later, they took control of the House and Senate. Four years ago at this point, there was still talk of Republican dominance after President George W. Bush's reelection. But Democrats held New Jersey and Virginia that fall.
Those elections signaled that Bush was a declining asset and that the Republican message had begun to lose its potency. A year later, Republicans lost control of Congress, and two years after that Democrats retook the White House.
No one anticipates a congressional upheaval of that sort in 2010. The Republicans are clearly in disarray: They are shrinking as a party and are struggling for leadership and vision. The start of Obama's presidency gives Democrats hope that they can weather what normally should be a difficult midterm election for the party in power.
But White House and Democratic Party leaders know that a loss in either state this fall will be interpreted as a setback for Obama. Republican victories in either state will boost a beleaguered party that is searching desperately for signs of renewal.
Virginia and New Jersey will be important for another reason. A lingering question from the 2008 election is whether the enthusiasm surrounding Obama's candidacy was singularly focused or transferable to other Democrats when he is not on the ballot. His candidacy was fueled by the passions he engendered among his followers and by the strongly anti-Bush sentiment in the country. To what extent did the results in 2008 signal affirmative endorsement of the Democratic Party?
The 2008 election brought a surge of participation into the Democratic primaries and significant shifts in voter registration that changed the shape of the electorates in many states, Virginia among them. Will all those new voters continue to participate this year and next?
The next phase will test whether Democrats continue to build on that record, and the first tests will come this fall. That's why so much is at stake Tuesday as the Democrats in Virginia select their gubernatorial nominee.