Governor's Races: One Contest and One No Contest
New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie is cruising towards a decisive victory in his campaign for re-election. The only question is whether his margin is so large that it automatically places him in the top tier of GOP presidential candidates in 2016, given that New Jersey is a reliably blue state won by President Obama in 2012 by 17%.
Christie, who was first elected in a race against scandal-tainted Democratic Governor John Corzine by about 4% in 2009, has been riding a wave of support since his handling of “Superstorm Sandy” in the week before the 2012 presidential election. Some polls suggest Christie could win by 25-30 points, with the closest poll showing him ahead by 19% over Democratic state Senator Barbara Buono.
Christie’s margin of victory will almost certainly exceed that of former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who won a special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat of Frank Lautenberg, the Democratic senator who died in June. Booker won by 10% over Republican Steve Lonegan in the election held on October 16. Christie selected the date for the special election for Lautenberg’s seat, choosing one that was three weeks before the regular November election date for the governor’s race.
Some speculated that his motive was avoiding having both races decided on the November election day, so as to limit the minority turnout (mainly African Americans) in Christie’s race, as this could cut into his own margin of victory. Christie said he picked the earlier date for the special election since he wanted the Senate vacancy filled sooner rather than later. Polls have shown Christie doing significantly better than most Republicans among African American voters. The governor has campaigned in African American areas, and has maintained good relations with Booker, the state’s most prominent African American politician. Buono will almost certainly win the African American vote decisively, but not by the Barack Obama-sized margins of his presidential races (95% to 4% in 2008, 93% to 6% in 2012).
It is no secret that Christie is interested in running for president in 2016. Excerpts from a new book on the 2012 campaign reveal that Christie was considered for the 2012 vice presidential nomination by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and that he was one of the five finalists for the spot eventually offered to Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. The book claims that Christie was passed over in part due to Romney’s concerns about his health, mainly associated with Christie’s weight, as well as issues relating to his career prior to becoming governor.
Christie delivered the keynote address at the 2012 GOP convention, and his talk made almost no reference to Romney, the Republican standard-bearer about to be nominated. When President Obama visited New Jersey after “Superstorm Sandy," he was warmly greeted by Christie, and the two seemed to be a team. Given that their meet-up took place just days before the presidential election, the bipartisanship exhibited by both men to address storm victims and damage seemed to give Obama a lift in the national polls heading towards the finish line. It also seemed to give Christie a political boost in New Jersey, where Obama is popular. Obama’s eventual national margin of victory (4%) doubled in the last week of the race.
It is, of course, very early to be assessing a candidate’s chances to be nominated and to win in 2016. Hillary Clinton is virtually certain to be the Democratic nominee, since it is most unlikely that she will skip the race to stay home baking, waiting for grandchildren, collecting royalties from her next ghostwritten collection of memoirs, and making the occasional speech for Goldman Sachs and others for several hundred thousand dollars a pop. Clinton is an extraordinarily focused politician, and has had her eye on the White House since her husband first ran for the office, if not before.
Christie has run well in early head-to-head polling against Clinton, suggesting a broader support level in certain areas of the country and among certain groups than other Republicans who are considered likely candidates for the nomination in 2016. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has also shown some crossover appeal due to his libertarian streak. Peggy Noonan has argued that Christie’s ability to win decisively in a blue state is due in large part to his everyman appeal. He is neither the Wall Street candidate nor the candidate of the Tea Party, but rather someone who seems to enjoy being out with voters and is seen as a problem-solver, with some of the retail political skills of Bill Clinton.
Given the deep divisions in the Republican Party, even a 30-point win on Tuesday will not automatically catapult Christie to frontrunner status. There are reservations among conservatives that he is too moderate, and that moderates lost the last two elections (McCain and Romney). In any case, given the unpopularity of Congress -- and in particular, Republicans in Congress -- successful governors such as Christie, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker (who also has won twice in a blue state), and Indiana’s Mike Pence will all be in the mix for 2016.
Virginia’s governor's race has a entirely different feel. The outcome has become a bit less certain over the last week, with most polls showing a tightening race. Democrat Terry McAuliffe seemed to be headed for a decisive win, with three separate polls giving him leads of 12 points or more over the Republican candidate, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
McAuliffe has stuck closely to the Obama 2012 campaign script in his second race for governor, raising huge sums of money early on. He nearly doubled the fundraising of Cuccinelli ($34 million to $19 million). McAuliffe’s media campaign has focused almost exclusively on the themes Obama used effectively against Mitt Romney, utilizing constant negative attacks on his opponent such as “the Republicans’ alleged war on women," while trying to taint Cuccinelli with the scandals of current Republican Governor Bob McDonnell. McAuliffe also got a boost from the effort by some congressional Republicans that resulted in the shutdown of the federal government for the first two weeks of October. In a state heavily dependent on government salaries and contracts, the two week confrontation launched by the Tea Party and its supporters played very poorly.
Cuccinelli has now pulled within striking range in two recent polls -- 2% behind in an Emerson College poll, and 4% behind in a Quinnipiac College poll. Almost all of the polling in both New Jersey and Virginia has been conducted by college-associated polling groups, rather than by national polling organizations. In the presidential race in Virginia in 2012, the national polls were right on the mark, with Obama winning the state by 4%, exactly his national margin of victory.
Cuccinelli’s surge is likely associated with the extremely incompetent rollout of the Obamacare health care exchanges, as well as by the recent barrage of stories detailing that millions of Americans with individual insurance policies have already been dropped by insurance companies as a result of the non-compliance of the existing policies with Obamacare mandates for coverage. These stories about insurance company actions have put defenders of the new health care law such as McAuliffe in a defensive posture, since President Obama claimed for almost four years that people who liked their doctors or their plans would get to keep them.
Cuccinelli, on the other hand, was an early foe of Obamacare and challenged the law in court. After two weeks of the race being nationalized on terms very favorable to McAuliffe (the debt ceiling fight and government shutdown), now the race has been impacted by national news far more favorable to the Republican nominee (big government incompetence and Obama lies). Barack Obama will campaign for McAuliffe in the final days, trying to stimulate heavy minority turnout, but his visit may focus even more attention on the health care law.
The Virginia race has a bit of added uncertainty due to a third party candidate, Robert Sarvis, running as a Libertarian. Sarvis has consistently polled at levels over 10%. Normally, the vote total of third party candidates sinks on election day from prior polling levels when the race is close between the two major party candidates. Ralph Nader polled at 5% or higher before the 2000 race, but failed to reach 3% of the actual popular vote. Sarvis’ polling numbers have shown no sign of dropping off as Cuccinelli has edged closer to McAuliffe (a lead of 5% for McAuliffe on average in the last five polls), and Sarvis seems to be picking up some support from people who have moved away from McAuliffe. Both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli are far better known than Sarvis, and most Virginia voters seem unhappy with both of them. From the Emerson College survey:
All the candidates continue to have higher unfavorable than favorable ratings, with McAuliffe’s at 37 percent favorable to 52 percent unfavorable and Cuccinelli at 38 percent to 56 percent. Third party candidate Sarvis is also disliked with a 22 percent unfavorable rating and a 19 percent favorable rating.
The Virginia race will likely be decided by turnout, where Democrats, with their more technologically sophisticated get-out-the-vote operations, have excelled in the Obama era. Virginia is considered a purple state, but Democrats have won both Senate races and the last two presidential races. Republicans had their day in the state races in 2009 and in House races in 2010. Unless there is a significant shift from Sarvis to Cuccinelli in the next few days, McAuliffe appears headed to a mid-single-digit victory. In any case, there is undoubtedly more nervousness this weekend in the McAuliffe camp than there was last weekend. There is also nervousness in the Hillary Clinton household, since having Clinton ally McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s chair would be a boost to her 2016 candidacy.