Washington It was probably inevitable that the elections for governor, taking place in November in New Jersey and Virginia, would be seen by many people outside those states as a referendum on Barack Obama’s performance as president.
Those will be the first statewide contests since he entered the White House, and they are taking place in states he won last year. But forces of history and economics add to the presidential stakes in the outcomes.
History: In 1993, a year after the last previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton, was elected, Republicans captured the Virginia governorship with George Allen and New Jersey’s with Christine Todd Whitman. Their victories set the stage for the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 that in turn prepared the way for George Bush’s presidency.
After losing Congress in 2006 and the White House last year, Republicans are desperate for some good news — and look to be competitive in both these states.
Economics: When the current Democratic governors of New Jersey and Virginia were elected in 2005, the unemployment rates were, respectively, 4.7 percent and 3.4 percent. This April, the latest reported month, showed the ranks of the jobless had grown to 8.4 percent in New Jersey and 6.8 percent in Virginia.
In both states, the economy has become the biggest issue for voters — and a problem for Democrats. With their party in control of both houses of the New Jersey Legislature and one house in Virginia, plus the governorships, Democrats have been wrestling with budget cuts and calls for tax relief.
Just as Obama has blamed the Bush administration for the recession he inherited, the Democrats running in these two states have invoked Bush’s name and tied him to their opponents. The results may well show how much of the responsibility for the bad economy has shifted to their shoulders — and implicitly to Obama’s.
New Jersey is tough territory for the GOP. Whitman was the last Republican to win a statewide race, and the Democratic registration edge and Election Day margins have been increasing.
But Gov. Jon Corzine, who made a fortune on Wall Street and used it to finance successful campaigns, first for the Senate and then the governorship, has had a very rocky first term.
Republicans charge that he has failed to deliver on his key promises — to balance the budget and reduce some of the nation’s highest property taxes. Corzine insists he has done everything possible to mitigate the damage from a collapse of the national economy.
The Republican challenger, Chris Christie, made his reputation as the Bush-appointed U.S. attorney, tackling public corruption and convicting more than 130 public officials.
Democrats have tried to tarnish his reputation by pointing to contracts he signed with Republican insiders for legal work with his office, but the first post-primary poll last week by Quinnipiac University gave Christie a 50-40 percent lead over Corzine. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they were dissatisfied with the way things were going in New Jersey, and independents gave Christie a 24-point edge. Despite all this, Corzine’s unlimited treasury and the state’s Democratic leanings give him a chance.
In Virginia, both Obama — the first Democratic presidential winner in decades — and term-limited Gov. Tim Kaine, now doubling as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, have reasons to try to keep their party’s winning streak alive.
They were heartened by the results of last week’s Democratic primary, where state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, a soft-spoken, rural-based moderate, defeated flashy Clinton buddy Terry McAuliffe and liberal legislator Brian Moran. Deeds’ unexpectedly big win, including in his opponents’ base in the Washington suburbs, gives him momentum for the general election.
A Rasmussen poll taken right after the primary showed Deeds leading Republican Robert McDonnell, 47 percent to 41 percent, but when the same two men battled for state attorney general four years ago, McDonnell won by just over 300 votes — one of the closest elections in state history.
McDonnell, whose early history tied him closely to Pat Robertson and religious conservatives, has taken to heart the lesson from recent Republican defeats and is pitching his campaign to the suburban issues of taxes, transportation and schools.
A victory by either McDonnell or Christie would likely strengthen the pragmatist camp in internal Republican debates — the people who argue that mobilizing the conservative base is not enough for victory in competitive races. And that’s another reason why Obama will be working to defeat them.