Although eyes of the national media last week were fixed on Cairo and the looming Supreme Court confirmation battle, the real political action in 2009 is in two state gubernatorial races which may signal the direction of the 2010 congressional races and test whether Barack Obama reset the country’s political dial. As Dan Balz of the Washington Post put it:
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?
Last week the Republican Party did not commit collective suicide in New Jersey. Rather than select the firebrand challenger (who combined a desire to accept Guantanamo detainees into New Jersey prisons with a longing to dismantle the Garden State’s cities and to enact a flat tax which increased taxes on a majority of its citizens) New Jersey Republicans opted for former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, who is running on a platform of public integrity and fiscal conservatism. With incumbent Governor Jon Corzine trailing in the polls, Republicans hope that, as Mark Twain joked, reports of their death in the Northeast are greatly exaggerated. (And frankly, if they can’t beat Corzine with double-digit unemployment and a budgetary train wreck, it is hard to imagine how they might ever win a statewide race in New Jersey.)
Meanwhile in Virginia, Democrats go into Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary in a three-way horserace. Do they choose the likeable and more moderate Creigh Deeds, whom the Washington Post endorsed, or the “carnival broker” and former Clinton confidante Terry McAuliffe of Global Crossing fame? Maybe they will go with Brian Moran, who would have to convince voters outside of Northern Virginia that he is not too liberal on everything from gay marriage to guns and also will have to evade the ethical stench which follows his brother, Rep. James Moran (now caught up in a growing ethics scandal in Congress).
Waiting for the Democratic winner, with high approval ratings and a boatload of cash is Bob McDonnell, the former state attorney general. With roots in voter-rich Northern Virginia and a reputation for getting no-nonsense bills through the often stalemated state legislature, McDonnell hopes to put to rest the conventional wisdom that Virginia is now “too blue” for a fiscally conservative Republican.
Tucker Martin, McDonnell’s press secretary, tells Pajamas Media that Virginia Democrats have misread the 2008 results:
Virginia remains a center-right state. The president’s most effective television ads here were focused on cutting taxes for the middle class. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine spent their time on the trail forming sportsmen coalitions and promising not to raise taxes. Democrats in Virginia have always been careful to package themselves as “Virginia” Democrats, not “national” Democrats. That distinction has disappeared this year. All three Democratic candidates are running on far-left platforms that are indistinguishable from the national Democratic Party. Democrats are gambling that Virginia is not newly purple, but instead permanently blue. Political history argues that their gamble is not a wise one.
Even former Democratic Governor Doug Wilder thinks McDonnell may have the upper hand:
Wilder said “there’s something in the air” that makes him think Virginia voters aren’t prepared to elect a Democrat to the governorship for the third straight time. Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have won the last two gubernatorial elections in the commonwealth. Before that, Republicans won two consecutive victories with George Allen and Jim Gilmore.
“Each time around, voters say, ‘Wait a minute, no one’s supposed to be here forever,’ and I think Virginians like to see that degree of balance,” Wilder said in an interview with CNN. “They like to mix it up. I think the guy who can ride that horse to show some grasp of the independent voter, rather than just the Republican or Democratic voter, will be successful. That’s key.”
In some ways both races are a replay of the 2008 elections — but with a party role reversal. In 2008, Democrats benefited from a sagging economy, a strong desire to “throw the bums out,” and a hope that political acrimony and incompetence could be replaced with collegial, smart government.
In New Jersey, George W. Bush is a fading memory but Jon Corzine is the floundering incumbent. He is the one with the record of fiscal mismanagement, a culture of political corruption, and an aura of missed opportunities. The Goldman Sachs “genius” ran on a platform of reform and business acumen. But he is now shouldering the blame for the state with the worst business climate in America and is sporting a laundry list of broken promises on everything from tax rebates to school reform. As a result, Corzine’s poll numbers look starkly like Bush’s at the end of his final term.
In Virginia, Kaine leaves office with a paltry record of accomplishment and rising concerns about the budget, taxes, school funding, and transportation. Unlike popular Mark Warner, who handed Kaine the political baton in 2005, Kaine is in no position to do the same for the Democratic contender or to point to any significant accomplishment in the last four years of Democratic rule.
Meanwhile, Big Labor is licking its chops, hoping to muscle into the right-to-work state. That image suits McDonnell just fine, as this report explains:
McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said the issue offers evidence of union pressure and labor’s increasing sway in a right-to-work state, which prohibits agreements between trade groups and employers that would require union dues as a condition of employment.
“In a right-to-work state, that puts them more in line with their national union benefactors than voters of this state,” Martin said.
So in a very real sense, both the Virginia and New Jersey races test whether voters will put up with higher taxes, Big Labor influence, and fiscal profligacy when Republicans field viable and attractive candidates. Democrats will certainly rely on the president to campaign and raise money, but the issue will be whether state voters want not Obama, but liberal government.
By selecting Christie and McDonnell, Republicans have made it more difficult for their opponents to run against the stereotypical “right-wing” Republican who is only interested in social issues. (While both Christie and McDonnell are pro-life, neither is making social issues the mainstay of their campaign.) They’ll try, of course, but in tough economic times it’s questionable whether voters will fall for grainy ads tying the Republican to Rush Limbaugh or screaming that the Republican will take away “a woman’s right to choose.” (Last time we looked, Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land.) Martin observes:
The old box that Democrats attempt to put every Republican into just doesn’t fit Bob McDonnell. He combines the right message with the right vehicle, and Democrats both here and nationally are scared to death about it. This explains their unprecedented early negative television barrage. The majority of Virginians aren’t conservative or liberal, they are just looking for the candidate with the best ideas to help make their lives a little better.
If McDonnell and/or Christie succeed, many political obituaries for the GOP will need to be torn up. And a few assumptions about the new era of liberal dominance may go by the wayside as well.