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Va., N.J. Gubernatorial Races May Prove Early Test of Obama Policies

October 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia have emerged as an early test of the public's support for President Obama's domestic agenda. Gwen Ifill discusses the implications with two political analysts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At stake are the governor’s offices in New Jersey and Virginia. Will Democrats hold those jobs, and are there national implications either way?

Gwen Ifill takes a look.

GWEN IFILL: In Virginia, the race for governor features all the usual political suspects, a Democrat, a Republican, and, at a debate last night, disputes over which one can best handle the economy

BOB MCDONNELL (R), Virginia gubernatorial candidate: We’re in a tough economy, the largest — the largest unemployment in decades, Judy, the budget, that $6 billion budget deficit. And, to me, this is the most important issue that is facing us.

GWEN IFILL: Transportation.

CREIGH DEEDS (D), Virginia gubernatorial candidate: There’s no quicker way to create jobs and to create economic activity in every part of Virginia than to fix our transportation situation.

GWEN IFILL: And taxes.

BOB MCDONNELL: One thing they tell me that they can’t sustain, though, is more new taxes and more new regulation. And, yet, those are some of the policies that my opponent supports.

CREIGH DEEDS: The boogeyman that he’s going to raise every time is taxes. And I have got no plan to raise taxes on farmers.

GWEN IFILL: Similar issues are on the table in New Jersey, home to the nation’s only other gubernatorial race this fall. But it is increasingly a three-way race, as incumbent Jon Corzine, a Democrat, battles Republican Chris Christie and independent Christopher Daggett. And this is a race which has gotten particularly personal.

NARRATOR: Christie threw his weight around as U.S. attorney and got off easy.

NARRATOR: Jon Corzine, his negative ads can’t hide his failed record.

GWEN IFILL: Polls show Corzine and Christie in a virtual dead-heat. Daggett’s support grew after he won the endorsement this week of New Jersey’s largest newspaper.

Corzine’s popularity has sagged with the state’s economy and a string of corruption scandals unrelated to his campaign. The Virginia and New Jersey races are attracting national attention, in part because President Obama won both states last year.

But New Jersey has historically been more hospitable to Democrats, siding with them in the last five presidential elections, while, until last year, Virginia has generally leaned toward Republicans.

Democrat Creigh Deeds is hoping to capitalize on evidence that the once red state has recently trended to shades of purple.

CREIGH DEEDS: We have to decide if we’re going to continue to lead with an optimistic, commonsense form, with the mold that’s been made by Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, the mold to take us forward, leadership style to take us forward, or whether we’re going to go back.

GWEN IFILL: But Republican Bob McDonnell, the state’s former attorney general, has consistently been leading in the polls.

BOB MCDONNELL: This race is about who’s got the best experience to be able to lead Virginia for the next four years. It’s also about who’s got the best vision to be able to create jobs and opportunity and prosperity.

GWEN IFILL: The president has campaigned for the Democrats in both states, appearing alongside Corzine in July and Deeds in August. But the Deeds campaign has also tried to distance itself from the president’s less popular policies, telling reporters last week, “We had a very tough August because people were just uncomfortable with the spending.”

But, when it comes to political spending, the candidates in both states have gone all in, spending tens of millions of dollars on expensive television advertising.

For more, we’re joined by Amy Walter, editor in chief of The Hotline, National Journal’s political daily, and Bob Holsworth, founder and author of the political blog Virginia Tomorrow.

Thank you both for joining us.

AMY WALTER, editor-in-chief, The Hotline: Thank you, Gwen.

All politics are local

Amy Walter
The Hotline
The local issues are really driving this.

GWEN IFILL: Amy, what are the driving issues in these two races?

AMY WALTER: Well, this is -- with most -- as with most local elections, the local issues are really driving this.

So, you saw in the setup piece taxes, transportation really driving in both -- both of those states, transportation more so in Virginia, taxes, especially property taxes, in New Jersey. But there's always -- over-reaching, overarching all this is the sense of enthusiasm.

And that's really what we're going to be looking for, the enthusiasm among voters right now for either the Democrat or the Republican candidate. Obviously, in the last few years, Democrats have had the enthusiasm advantage. This year, we're looking to see if Republicans can start making up some ground.

GWEN IFILL: Bob Holsworth, in Virginia, the last two governors have been Democrats. Why is this not a lock for Creigh Deeds -- Creigh Deeds? Pardon.

BOB HOLSWORTH, Gwen, I think a couple of things are happening.

First, the national environment actually was much more favorable to the Democrats in the last race, in particular in 2005, because Virginians were so distressed with the policies of George Bush. Right now, what's happened is that that environment has changed. And the polls are showing a lot of concern and anxiety in Virginia about the policies in Washington, particularly those, I think, that are being developed by the Congress.

And that has really upset, I think, the entire strategy of the Deeds' campaign.

Secondly, Bob McDonnell's turned out to be a -- a very smart candidate. And he has utilized these national issues, such as cap-and-trade and card check, very effectively here in Virginia to suggest that the Democrats overall are too much in lockstep with what's happening in Washington.

GWEN IFILL: Amy, similarly, why is Jon Corzine, an incumbent, in trouble in New Jersey?

AMY WALTER: Well, a lot of it is about Jon Corzine. I mean, his approval rating numbers have been really at a very low point going all the way back to 2008.

The economy is a big reason for that, and taxes, always a big issue in New Jersey, the driver there. But, again, the political environment there not quite as important, because this is a very, very blue state. It's a state where Republicans traditionally have had tons of trouble.

GWEN IFILL: And he was a U.S. senator from that state. So, he's a known quantity.

AMY WALTER: Yes, he was a former U.S. senator. He has lots and lots of money that he puts into his own race, absolutely a known quantity.

But the bottom line is, right now, his own personal baggage is what's really weighing him down. And, bottom line, if it weren't for Tim Daggett, Jon Corzine couldn't win this race.

President Obama's influence

Bob Holsworth
What we're seeing in these polls is a real shift in the electorate. Last year, the Democrats probably had about a seven-point advantage in the group of likely voters...that advantage right now is on the Republican side.

GWEN IFILL: Bob Holsworth, in Virginia, President Obama has made one trip. I think Vice President Biden has made one trip on behalf of the Democratic ticket. Is -- has that had any appreciable effect in helping Creigh Deeds or hurting him?

BOB HOLSWORTH: I don't think it's had an appreciable effect so far.

And Deeds has had this very ambivalent relationship to the president. On one hand, as your piece noted, that Deeds has somehow blamed Washington for some of the problems he's confronting in the campaign. But, on the other hand, if he's going to reverse this enthusiasm gap that's developed on behalf of the Republicans in Virginia, he's going to need President Obama to mobilize the Democratic base.

One very interesting factoid, Gwen, in 2008, 20 percent of the Virginia electorate, according to the exit polls, were African-Americans. Washington Post took a poll last week. And, if the election was held last week, African-Americans would compose 12 percent of the Virginia electorate.

This is a precipitous decline and one that I don't think Creigh Deeds is going to be able to solve on his own. He's going need folks like Barack Obama in here, if he's going to be able to be competitive come November.

GWEN IFILL: Are those Democrats staying home, as far as we know, or are they voting for the other guy?

BOB HOLSWORTH: I think more and more among the Democrats is just staying home.

What we're seeing in these polls is a real shift in the electorate. Last year, the Democrats probably had about a seven-point advantage in the group of likely voters. In almost all the polling I have seen so far, that advantage right now is on the Republican side. And, more than anything else, it's Democrats just not being excited and energized by the Deeds campaign.

Republicans v. 'Obama brand'

Amy Walter
The Hotline
What these races may tell us is, it's a test as much about the Republican brand as the Obama brand.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I wonder, Amy, whether that same enthusiasm doesn't then show itself in the -- in the soar -- the soaring numbers, relatively, of Chris Daggett, the third-party candidate in New Jersey. Is this an anybody-but-who-we-see kind of moment?

AMY WALTER: That's exactly what is going on there.

Daggett, whom I think mistakenly nicknamed Tim earlier -- sorry. It's Chris. Yes, he's certainly been able to benefit from the fact that voters right now have seen a very negative campaign in New Jersey. And, right now, he is an alternative to the negative campaigning that they have seen. They don't really want to vote for Corzine.

And given the information that's been pounded into them through TV ads -- and Jon Corzine, as I said, has a lot of money, and he's spending it very well -- they don't really want -- they're not really looking forward to voting for him either.

The Newark Star-Ledger actually endorsed Daggett this weekend, which you -- you very rarely see an independent candidate, especially one who is only getting in the high single digits to the mid double-digits -- you know, he's in the teens, really -- getting an endorsement of a newspaper.

I think, though, that the other point that is really important when we're talking about this enthusiasm gap, and I think when we're looking at what this -- what these races may tell us is, it's a test as much about the Republican brand as the Obama brand.

In many ways, Democrats do have a challenge in this election and then in 2010 in putting together that coalition that President Obama did. It was a very unique coalition. He energized a whole lot of people who hadn't voted before. Getting them to turn out is going to be very difficult.

But I think what we're also seeing in places like New Jersey or Northern Virginia, especially among independent voters, voters who, two years ago, were overwhelmingly identified as Democrats or identified as voting for a Democratic candidate, they now don't see the Republican brand as being as toxic as it once was.

In many of those places, if you had an R after your name in New Jersey or Northern Virginia, that alone was a disqualifier. Now I think the fact that those candidates are even in the game suggests that we're looking at a very different setup for 2010 as well for Republicans.

GWEN IFILL: Bob Holsworth, what do you think about that? Is that what you're seeing as well?

BOB HOLSWORTH: I think she's right on target there, because what has happened is that Bob McDonnell has taken tremendous pains to try to distance himself and redefine Republicanism as a party of solutions, not simply as the party of no.

Somebody very close to the Deeds campaign the other day talked about the transportation issue, which is so important in Northern Virginia, to me. And they said, you know, McDonnell's plan is really a D-minus. They said, but in fact, we have no plan. And, at the moment, D-minus trumps nothing.

And I think that's been very critical for Bob McDonnell, to try to redefine the Republican brand in Virginia as one that has solutions to problems that people face, without necessarily going down the Democratic route of automatically raising taxes, is how he is portraying it.

GWEN IFILL: So, you believe the president has to come in and visit again in order for...


GWEN IFILL: Yes, go ahead.

BOB HOLSWORTH: Yes, absolutely, because the fact is, is that the Democrats in Virginia right now are simply not energized. And if you take a look at some of these polls, where the Democrats still have the opportunity to acquire some voters in this race is by going back into their own base, going back into those Obama voters, and turning them out.

They have had a lot of trouble doing this. Creigh Deeds, of course, did not receive the endorsement of Former Governor L. Douglas Wilder. He's seen in many instances as a person who is more a rural guy than an urban metropolitan guy. And he's going to need Barack Obama, Tim Kaine, Mark Warner and a lot of help, I think, to make this race competitive come three weeks from today.

GWEN IFILL: Bob Holsworth of Virginia Tomorrow and Amy Walter of The Hotline, thank you both very much.

AMY WALTER: Thank you.

BOB HOLSWORTH: Great to be here.