Two Governor Races Worth Watching

Washington Matters

Two Governor Races Worth Watching

Could it be just what the doctor ordered for the nearly cheerless GOP? Two highly contested gubernatorial elections later this year in New Jersey and Virginia could give Republicans a sorely needed morale lift and some momentum going into the 2010 national midterm elections. Both states are currently run by Democrats, and a loss of one or both would give a sorely needed boost to Republicans struggling to find fresh leadership and prevent a further contraction of their national base.

Both states went for Obama in 2008, and although he won't be on the ballot this time, the outcome will be treated at least in part as a referendum on the president's record on the economy, health care, climate change legislation and his conduct of military and diplomatic affairs. It will also be a key measure of support for Democrats from moderates and independents. Both states have a large pool of them.

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New Jersey is normally fairly safe Democratic territory in state-wide elections. Obama carried it 57% to 42%. But Democrats don't have anything close to a lock on the governor's race. Incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine, D, a former senator and Goldman Sachs chief executive, has been struggling with low approval ratings and trails his Republican opponent in recent polls. The state is beset with a deep economic contraction and big job losses,  particularly in the financial markets, banking and insurance industries.

Only one in three New Jersey voters say Corzine deserves reelection. His challenger, Christopher Christie, a U.S. attorney for the New Jersey federal district, is well known for tackling public corruption cases, corporate crimes and industrial polluters. Early odds favor Christie. He'd also benefit from low voter turnout, which is more likely in an off-year election. Look for Obama and Vice President Biden to hit the campaign trail many times this fall to help keep the state Democratic. It'll be hard though. Corzine will have to spend heavily, tapping more of his personal investment banking fortune. Corzine spent an astonishing $60 million to win his Senate race and another $43 million to win the governorship.


Virginia merits watching also. It closely mirrored the nation in the presidential race, and it has been trending Democratic in recent cycles with a Democratic governor, Tim Kaine, who doubles as chair of the Democratic National Committee, and two Democratic senators, Jim Webb and Mark Warner. It even can be argued that Obama's 53% to 46% victory in Virginia last year put him over the top nationally against John McCain and broke the Republican bear hold on southern states. Having a Democratic governor in Richmond could prove strategically vital to Obama in 2012 with organization and voter mobilization and fundraising. 

But Democrats may be somewhat less unified this year, especially after a contested three-way primary. Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds won the Democratic nomination with a late surge, but he's still relatively unknown to many in the state, especially moderates and independents in the populous northern counties near Washington, DC. State Atty. Gen. Bob McDonnell, with long established roots in northern Virginia, promises a well financed and organized campaign. His support among Republicans is very strong, including in rural areas that typically have leaned Republican. 

Two Republican pick-ups would also provide a little more balance to the roster of governors. Currently, there are 22 Republican governors and 28 Democratic.

The two races are also the biggest and most important test to date for Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee who has had a very rocky start and has had to fend off criticism from party figures and conservative commentators frustrated with the current state of the party and his management of the RNC. While Republicans will be very competitive in both races, a double loss would probably mean the end of Steele's short run at the RNC and another fresh round of competition this winter for party leadership.