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The '09 Governors' Races

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

With Virginia Democrats picking their gubernatorial nominee on Tuesday, The Post asked political experts to explain the national implications of elections there and in New Jersey. Below are contributions from Christine Todd Whitman, Douglas E. Schoen, Karl Rove, Catherine A. "Kiki" McLean, Mark Sanford, Norman J. Ornstein, Tom Davis, Ed Gillespie, Ed Rogers, Brian Schweitzer, Karen Finney and Tom Kean.

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CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN

Chair of the Republican Leadership Council; governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001

The state races in New Jersey and Virginia, which are held between congressional election years, have tended to be canaries in the coal mine of the national political mood. In 1993, Republicans won these two gubernatorial elections. George Allen replaced a Democrat in Virginia, and I beat the incumbent Democrat in New Jersey. These victories were a prelude for Newt Gingrich and the signatories of the Contract with America to succeed in taking back the House of Representatives the following year. While the analogy to this year's elections is not exact, both the Obama administration and the Republican National Committee are looking hard at the possibility of Republican victories in this year's gubernatorial races.

The GOP has a lot to prove this fall -- we have to demonstrate that we have maintained our fundamental confidence in the ability of families and communities to make better decisions about their futures than the government can. Chris Christie won the Republican nomination, I would like to think, in part because he trusts New Jersey families not only with their finances but also with their personal lives. This represents a step toward reconnecting with the voters by offering the solutions that America so desperately needs.

If Republicans can communicate effectively with the American people in this year's gubernatorial elections -- as they failed to do in 2006 and 2008 -- that shift alone will greatly affect the GOP as a whole and Obama's approach to governing.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

The viability of the national Republican Party is at stake in these two elections. Republican losses could spell the beginning of the end for the GOP as a truly national, broad-based party. But the Republican candidates' different approaches raise questions about how the party would pursue a national resurgence.

New Jersey Republican candidate Chris Christie is running an almost entirely negative campaign, eschewing positive appeals in favor of ongoing attacks on the fiscal and ethics policies of incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine. In Virginia, by contrast, former attorney general Bob McDonnell is running a centrist, nonpartisan campaign based on inclusive conservative values against a divided Democratic Party.

If the Republicans manage to win Virginia and New Jersey with two dramatically different campaign approaches, it will suggest that Obama's current popularity is probably transitory, and not reflective of a larger structural movement to the Democratic Party. Particularly in New Jersey, if Christie's negative campaign proves successful, it will suggest that the current approach of congressional Republicans -- which is to oppose virtually all of Obama's initiatives -- has some potential and offers a possible path to victory in the 2010 midterm elections. Moreover, should McDonnell win in Virginia, given his centrist, nonpartisan policies, it will at the least suggest to Republicans that there is a course on which they can be successful other than the one they are currently pursuing in Washington.

KARL ROVE

White House deputy chief of staff and senior adviser to George W. Bush; columnist for Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal; Fox News contributor

To the victorious party will go the spoils of framing the 2010 elections in a more optimistic light.

Democratic defeats in Virginia or New Jersey -- or even narrow victories -- would be discombobulating for the Obama White House and signal trouble in 2010. With unemployment likely to grow through perhaps the middle of next year and the federal government's red ink likely to become even more visible to increasingly anxious voters well before then, Democrats would be in for a rough time in the midterms, especially in races for the House and governorships.

Republican victories in one or both states, on the other hand, would embolden more good GOP candidates to enter the lists for 2010, energize party activists and prompt donors to open their wallets (more widely). Virginia and New Jersey may elect Republican governors for local reasons, but the implications would be national.

Democrats have big tactical advantages in this year's contests: a White House that can raise money and grab attention, volunteers jazzed by last fall's sweep and, in New Jersey, a Goldman Sachs zillionaire willing to spend tens of millions on attack ads. Despite this, Republicans are clearly competitive in polling in both states. Let the general elections begin!

CATHERINE A. "KIKI" MCLEAN

Democratic strategist

New Jersey and Virginia aren't typically thought of as states that share a similar political profile. One is Northeastern; the other, the heart of the South. Their economies are different. New Jersey is generally thought of as safe in the Democrats' presidential column, while many still consider Virginia's support for Barack Obama a fluke owing to an extraordinary candidate (even though Virginians have elected two consecutive Democratic governors).

But it's all about momentum -- building it, slowing it or flat-out stopping it. The off-year gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia will be used by pundits, media and both parties to measure momentum, and come November the two states will be touted as poster children.

Of course, momentum doesn't directly determine outcome. We've all seen the big "MO" vanish overnight. But momentum can change conventional wisdom for political parties, the next round of candidates and even the president.

A double loss for Democrats will forecast a disappointing 2010 cycle; a double win will be cited as confirmation of Americans' continued desire for Obama change. But that murky middle, a split outcome, will spark the real battle.

MARK SANFORD

Governor of South Carolina, chairman of the Republican Governors Association

Many have said the upcoming gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia are either a referendum on the new president or desperate must-wins for the GOP. I'd submit that neither school of thought is quite right.

While I've seen growing anxiety over the president's attempt to solve our economic problems by burying future generations under mountains of debt, I believe these gubernatorial races will ultimately hinge not on national issues but on voters picking who is best to lead their respective states. In Virginia, where there will be no incumbent, voters are likely to judge the candidates' plans to create jobs and their ideas to solve other local challenges such as transportation. The New Jersey race is more likely to be a referendum on Gov. Jon Corzine's plan to hike taxes by $1 billion than a referendum on President Obama.

The bottom line is that Democrats need to win these states every bit as much as the Republicans. They hold both governorships and all the Senate seats in these two states. Obama carried both states just last year. For Republicans, we either begin 2010 no worse off, or our comeback will have begun. I expect the latter, and the real pressure will be on Democrats to prevent it.

NORMAN J. ORNSTEIN

Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

The off-year gubernatorial contests are often the first real opportunity for a party out of power to get back some momentum. That is especially true for Republicans this year, when everything else has gone sour: The GOP lost an almost-sure-thing House seat in a heavily Republican New York district vacated by now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand; and the Republicans might lose another seat with the departure of House Republican John McHugh (N.Y.) to the Obama administration.

Virginia has been trending blue, but the combination of an open contest for governor, a strong consensus Republican nominee and a hotly contested Democratic primary gives state Republicans real hopes of winning back a seat that has eluded them for the past two gubernatorial elections. In New Jersey, a bad economy has contributed to poor numbers for incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine, leaving the GOP well positioned.

Twin victories, coming just as the serious fundraising for the 2010 midterm congressional and state legislative elections is ramping up, and just as the key candidate recruitment season is underway, would be a big boost. Conversely, losing one or both would reinforce the image of the GOP as a party on the wane, unable to build a coalition beyond its bedrock right fringe. For the Democrats, losing two prime statehouses would be painful, but no cause for alarm or reason to fear that their party base -- growing handsomely among young voters, Hispanics and Asians, and overwhelmingly strong with African Americans -- is in danger of shrinking.

TOM DAVIS

Former U.S. representative from Virginia; president of the Republican Main Street Partnership

New Jersey and Virginia will provide voters' first opportunity to weigh in on the direction Barack Obama and the Democrats are taking the country. Although state issues are part of voters' formulations, these races traditionally reflect a national pulse.

In 1993, Republican gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey presaged a Republican upheaval in 1994. Both states were carried by Obama in 2008 and are trending Democratic. A Republican win in Virginia, however, could confirm that Democratic gains there are not the result of a new partisan alignment but merely a reaction to an unpopular president. A Republican win in New Jersey (which has voted for the Democratic presidential candidate five consecutive times) would indicate that the GOP can and will come back in the Northeast.

History is on Republicans' side in Virginia, where voters have rejected the gubernatorial nominee of the incumbent president's party eight straight times. Moreover, Tim Kaine has been a disappointing governor -- accomplishing little of substance and polarizing politics in Richmond. While not providing much of a legacy, though, Kaine will ensure, as DNC chairman, that his party's candidate is amply funded.

In New Jersey, funding will favor the incumbent Democratic multimillionaire, Jon Corzine. The state's poor economy and tough budgetary situation, however, will weigh heavily on him.

On balance, both races appear competitive. Democratic victories will boost the Obama team -- indicating they are on the right course politically -- while Democratic losses in both states would warn that midterm losses could be greater than anticipated. A split decision, while giving some comfort to both parties, could signal longer-term problems for the GOP.

ED GILLESPIE

Former chairman of the Republican National Committee; general chairman of Bob McDonnell's gubernatorial campaign

In Virginia, Republican gubernatorial nominee Bob McDonnell is turning the national political narrative on its head. In the nation's capital, President Obama and congressional Democrats have done an effective job of putting forward an agenda on energy, health care and the economy, and portraying Republicans as the party of "no."

To counter this, Republicans need policy prescriptions in addition to policy critiques. McDonnell has taken full advantage of having the GOP nomination to himself while three Democrats are vying in Tuesday's primary. All year long, he has been putting out policies related to job creation, energy, education, state government reform, crime and conservation. His speech to the best-attended Virginia GOP convention in 15 years was studded with policies to which we can "just say yes," with an explicit appeal to independents and Democrats.

McDonnell is proving that Republicans can stay true to the principle of limited government and at the same time provide voters with solutions to problems we face in these difficult economic times. McDonnell is ahead in all polls right now. If he wins in November, Democrats who now take for granted their party's dominance will have to rethink their assumptions -- and Republicans will have a model for winning in competitive states.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

The elections in Virginia and New Jersey present little downside for the GOP. To lose both would mean only that both states remain in Democratic hands; the losses would amount to one more mangled car added to the colossal political train wreck that started in 2006. But in politics bad gets worse, so if we lose both many in the media will declare the results a metaphor for the larger demise of the party -- America's rejection of narrow-minded Republicans. George Bush will be blamed, and the legend of Barack Obama's political appeal will grow.

If Republican Bob McDonnell wins Virginia it would suggest that the party's decline is slowing and the traditional GOP strongholds are coming back. More important, a win in New Jersey would suggest that the dangerous regionalization of the party is not at all certain. We would certainly enjoy overstating the significance of the results. Some would say that this is the beginning of the end for Democratic control of Congress and that it foreshadows the defeat of President Obama in 2012. A double win would give us our first good election night since 2004.

Clearly, this is not a good time to be an incumbent, and it is hard to argue that more of the same is desirable in any of the 50 states. Just being the party out of power is an advantage in Virginia and New Jersey. This could be the case in many parts of the country in 2010. The GOP's darkest days could be about to end.

BRIAN SCHWEITZER

Governor of Montana and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association

Republicans have staked their "comeback" hopes on these governors' races. After losing two federal elections in a row and losing all four of their targeted governors' race last year, they have defined Virginia and New Jersey as "must-wins."

But voters in those states and in the 37 states with governors' races in 2010 -- the election of a generation -- know that we need to reject the policies of the past eight years that took our economy off track.

The issue in these two races is jobs, jobs, jobs. In the past few days I've talked to voters in New Jersey and Virginia. The issue that keeps them up at night is putting the economy back on track. They are looking for pragmatic leaders who can bring people together to rebuild economies around new energy, keep investing for the long term in our children's education and sow the seeds for health-care reform. That's exactly what Democratic governors are doing around the country, as the chief executives of their states and key partners for President Obama's efforts to create and save good jobs.

KAREN FINNEY

Democratic consultant and commentator; former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee

The GOP needs a win in both states. Desperately. In addition to losing the White House and both houses of Congress, Republicans lost all four of their targeted governors' races last cycle. But it's unlikely that New Jersey and Virginia will go for Republicans.

A key to winning both states will be the ability to turn out the "Obama Democrats," the new voters brought into the process by Barack Obama's historic candidacy in 2008. These voters are younger, and they are blacker and browner -- not exactly demographics that the GOP has been able to win the past few cycles. In both states, Democrats know how to reach these voters; they have a message that will resonate; and they are bolstered by a popular Democratic president. The challenge for Democrats this year and beyond is to recognize that the allegiance of these voters is to President Obama; they cannot necessarily be counted on as "base voters" of the Democratic Party. At least not yet.

In Virginia, Democrats are poised to break yet another trend and hold on to the governorship. The party is seeing the importance of grass-roots politics pay off. The state party has worked hard over the past four years to reach out in all regions, particularly those areas that were once written off. Under Howard Dean's chairmanship, the DNC invested more than $10 million in Virginia, and candidates such as Mark Warner, Jim Webb and Gov. Tim Kaine have demonstrated strong, pragmatic and effective leadership.

TOM KEAN

Republican leader of the New Jersey Senate; candidate for U.S. Senate in New Jersey in 2004

Over the last 10 years, New Jersey has gotten a reputation as the bluest of Blue States. In truth, independents outnumber either Republicans or Democrats. That's why Governor Jon Corzine had to spend more than $60 million of his fortune to win against a moderate Republican in his first statewide race for U.S. senator in 2000. Former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie can beat him, despite ex-Wall Street executive Corzine's intimidating resources. Voters are fed up with corruption aggravated by one-party rule, soaring taxes and unemployment that's higher than any neighboring state's. In New Jersey the desire for change means voters are hungry for new and better leadership in the governor's mansion. Despite this, a 2009 victory in a state that went for John Kerry and Barrack Obama would still unquestionably lift the spirits of Republicans nationwide.



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