Monday, November 07, 2005

It’s Worth Your While to Watch the Off-Year Elections

By Stuart Rothenberg

Longtime readers of this column are probably well aware of my habit of downplaying the national importance of off-year gubernatorial elections, on the grounds that those contests say much more about the particular candidates involved and the political dynamics of the state than about the national mood or the president.

This year, I’m not so sure.

The candidates and their campaigns still matter a great deal. So do state-specific circumstances, including the relative strength of the parties, the standing of the incumbent governor and local issues.

But I believe that gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey are worth watching this year, in part because they may tell us something about whether the president’s problems have started to filter down to Republicans running for other offices. They also may tell us something about the mood of the electorate nationally — information that could be useful as we evaluate the parties’ opportunities and vulnerabilities next year.

While Democrats are on the attack nationally about alleged Republican ethical lapses from the White House to Congress to the governors’ mansions, the shoe is on the other foot in New Jersey. Voters in the Garden State see Democrats as more ethically challenged.

New Jersey has become a Democratic-leaning state, and, all things being equal, the Democratic nominee for governor, Sen. Jon Corzine, should have a considerable advantage over his GOP adversary, businessman/unsuccessful 2002 U.S. Senate candidate Doug Forrester.

But ethics questions surrounding Corzine, coming on top of a scandal that forced then-Gov. Jim McGreevey (D) from office, have given Republicans an opportunity. Moreover, Forrester’s effective use of the property tax issue has also enhanced his chances.

By 43 percent to 22 percent, registered voters told a WNBC/Marist poll that Democrats were more to blame for government corruption in the state. The same poll found that voters favored Republican gubernatorial candidate Forrester as likely to do a better job cleaning up corruption, 41 percent to 36 percent.

A stronger-than-expected showing by Forrester — not to mention an unexpected victory — would suggest that Garden State voters, who gave Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (D-Mass.) a healthy 7-point victory, are more affected by state and local issues than by the negative national media attention that has dogged Republicans for months.

Barring an upset victory by Forrester in New Jersey, Virginia is likely to get most of the national attention, since the race has been regarded as close for months.

True, Gov. Mark Warner (D) now controls the state’s top office, so a Tim Kaine (D) victory would constitute the maintenance of the status quo, not a break from it. But when the Virginia gubernatorial race began many months ago, most observers thought the Republican nominee, Jerry Kilgore, had the edge given the Republican lean of the state. So a Kaine victory, even given the popularity of Warner, would still be noteworthy as a psychological defeat for the GOP.

One GOP insider told me that a Kaine victory, particularly if it is regarded as more decisive than polls have been predicting for weeks, would be regarded as “the canary in the coal mine.”

“It could be worse than people now know. We could be in for a big ass whipping,” said the veteran Republican insider who promised that a clear Kaine victory would produce a “meltdown” in the national party.

You can bet that a Republican loss in Virginia’s gubernatorial race will have allies of President Bush blaming the defeat on the campaign of Kilgore, while some party strategists will surely point fingers at the White House — though only under the table, so that Karl Rove doesn’t see.

Privately, Republican insiders are expressing more and more concern about Kilgore’s showing in Northern Virginia, where down-ballot Republican candidates seem to be running into a strong wind. If Kilgore fares poorly there, it would unquestionably have GOP strategists worried about the party’s standing in similar suburban areas around the country. (Obviously, weaker-than-expected Republican showings in other parts of the state would raise different questions.)

The bottom line is that the Republicans need at least a split in next week’s gubernatorial elections to change the current political psychology. If that happens, they can argue that voters are focused on individual candidates and individual races, not on Hurricane Katrina, high gas prices, the war in Iraq or Scooter Libby. And that would boost their flagging morale.

On its face, a Democratic sweep of the two gubernatorial contests would merely maintain the status quo. But it would still be a disappointing outcome for national Republicans.

This column first appeared November 3, 2005 in Roll Call. Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.