An interesting thing appears to be happening thus far in this year’s two gubernatorial races: Despite New Jersey’s long-running status as a Democratic state, and Virginia’s newfound blue leanings, the Republican candidates are well ahead in the current polls, possibly making for a serious GOP comeback this November.
In New Jersey, which has been rocked by a recent set of ethics scandals that have mostly caught up Dems, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine trails Republican former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie by 50%-36% in the latest survey from Public Policy Polling (D). In Virginia, where Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine can’t seek re-election, Republican former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell leads Democratic state Sen Creigh Deeds by 55%-40% in the newest poll from SurveyUSA.
If Republicans win both or even one of these races, expect a lot of talk about this being a rejection of President Obama and the Democrats — for example, the economy has been the major issue in the Virginia campaign. So what are the state Democrats doing to turn it around?A New Jersey Democratic source says the Dems are not going to let Christie get away with keeping a positive image for himself, saying that Christie might now labor under the idea that voters associate him with honesty and good government. “What he doesn’t get is that people in New Jersey don’t think anything about him,” the source said — and Dems plan to attack Christie’s own ethics, as they’ve already done, on federal contracts that were given out during his time as U.S. Attorney.
Social issues also present an opportunity, as New Jersey is a liberal state at the end of the day. “You have a guy who is a very conservative, right-wing candidate, in New Jersey,” the source said, pointing to issues like abortion, gun control and the stimulus bill, all of which Christie has opposed.
In the other big race this year, a Virginia Democratic source thinks that McDonnell’s current lead may be artificially inflated right now by a few factors. McDonnell recently went on TV, while Deeds hasn’t been on the air since him primary win in early June. This could boost McDonnell’s name recognition among swing voters, while also throwing off likely voter models by disproportionately exciting McDonnell’s base — for example, McCain voters made up 52% of likely voters in the SurveyUSA poll, compared to 43% Obama voters, in a state that Obama won last year by 53%-46%.
“There haven’t really been punches thrown on TV yet between the two candidates, and that’s what engages folks,” the source said. As crunch time approaches, the Dems plan to highlight sharp differences between the two candidates — and to blame a lot of the current problems on the legacy of Republican rule. “Deeds will definitely be raising a lot of questions about Bush,” the source added.
Deeds will also be launching a new tour soon of rural Virginia — an area that he hails from, and which traditionally is carried by Republicans. The campaign has also launched a specialized Twitter feed for rural supporters, “Deeds Country,” as part of its plan to remain competitive in these red-leaning counties outside the Democratic bastions of northeastern Virginia.
Whatever happens, remember that these results will be carefully examined as a possible omen for 2010, just as the 1993 Republican wins in these states correctly foretold even greater wins for the GOP in 1994. On the other hand, the big Democratic wins in these same places in 2001 didn’t spell success for the party in 2002 — so anything can happen.