Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell may not have been linked before, but these two gubernatorial candidates are becoming quite a duo — mentioned together in reams of news stories and the subject of endless punditry. In a sparse year for elections they are at the center of two exciting and much-discussed races. Can they return the GOP to power? Does New Jersey or Virginia look more inviting?
This week they made a joint appearance in Washington, D.C., before the Republican Jewish Coalition. They don’t look much alike: McConnell, a former high school football star and Army veteran, is slight and Christie is not. Christie is the more gregarious of the two. But they have much in common. Both are “law enforcement guys,” as Christie put it. (Christie was a corruption-busting U.S. Attorney and McDonnell a well-regarded state attorney general.) And both have an unflinchingly conservative economic message that seeks to address the issues voters care most about.
McDonnell took the podium first. He didn’t waste time making the connection to another gubernatorial election year — 1993. He reminded the crowd that was the year when Christie Todd Whitman and George Allen, coming off a Republican defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1992, swept to wins to be followed in 1994 by Newt Gingrich, the Contract with America, and the shift in control of Congress which remained in Republican hands until 2006.
“A lot of people would like to see that scenario repeat,” McDonnell told the crowd. And he added a bit of Virginia lore; since 1972 the party that won the White House lost the Virginia gubernatorial race the next year. (He joked that nevertheless he “didn’t drive around with a Barack Obama bumper sticker on my car.”)
McDonnell in the months he has spent on the trail, unopposed in his own party and largely out of the fray, has come into his own as a retail politician. He is more buoyant and fluid than six months ago, projecting energy and confidence that were less evident before he became one-half of the biggest political duo this year. As a practiced retail candidate he knew his audience — mentioning his trip to Israel, his efforts to form an Israel friendship group after his return, and his friendship and political alliances with his neighbor Eric Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress.
But the meat of his remarks was aimed at explaining what his campaign is all about. He is running, he explained, a campaign focused on “solving problems that affect the quality of life issues people care about.” He ticked them off — education, energy, transportation and making “government run more like a business.” This, he contrasted to what we have seen coming out of Washington — card check, cap-and-trade, a stimulus plan filled with “unfunded mandates” for the states, and nationalized health care. In short, while not running against Barack Obama, he is, in large part, running against the liberal Democratic policies which polling shows are not popular, even with an electorate still entranced with Obama.
McDonnell also seemed to be liberated. He struggled to win his attorney general race in 2005 with George Bush weighing down the Republican brand. But now, he says, the “enthusiasm gap has evaporated.” As evidence he points to a number of Virginia business leaders who had endorsed Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine in their races who have now come out for him. The message: the Democrats are vulnerable on the economic issues which matter most.
Christie was up next. Although he made his name as a corruption-fighting prosecutor, he clearly loves retail politics, opening with a funny anecdote about James Gandolfino. But soon it was down to business. Like McDonnell, he realizes the attention which is devoted to his race. “We represent the opportunity for our party to refine our message, ” he explained. He warned the crowd that Democrats realize the stakes as well and even campaigned against him during his primary, trying to tip the scales to his less electable opponent. Christie told the crowd that Democrats are well aware “it does not bode well for the president and his agenda” if an incumbent governor in a major blue state goes down to defeat.
And Corzine and his record are plainly the focus of Christie’s race. He reeled off the list of demerits. “We are the most heavily taxed state in America … 50th in small business survival.” Thirteen of the top twenty counties with the highest property taxes are in New Jersey. In seven years of Democratic rule (he is all too happy to lump Corzine with Jim McGreevy who left office in scandal) taxes and fees have been raised 103 times, the business climate has become “toxic,” and New Jersey now has the highest unemployment in the region. He declared, “Can you believe that people are leaving New Jersey to go to New York for affordability!”
What is more, he explained that none of that includes the budget which Corzine is pushing through the legislature that hikes more taxes and slashes the property tax rebate. Meanwhile government spending has soared, rising 50% over the last seven years. He summed up: “In the decade of McGreevy and Corzine for every one private sector job created, fifteen government jobs were created. This is simply unsustainable.”
For those who have gotten their hopes up before in the Garden State only to see them dashed he assured his audience : “This is not a fantasy about winning New Jersey.”
Between now and November, McDonnell and Christie will likely cross paths again and again and appear in hundreds of stories together. Two “law enforcement” guys running on fiscal conservatism against tax and spend liberal policies sound attractive to a lot of Republicans. But to win in their states they will have to convince thousands of Independents and Democrats that they have the answer to the bread-and-butter issues voters worry about most. If they do that, this unlikely pair may be the new dynamic duo of the GOP and a sign that the GOP comeback is in full swing.