Politics -- July 10, 2013 at 5:22 PM ET
Two States, Two Elections: the Faceoffs in November
New Jersey state Sen. Barbara Buono, clockwise from top left, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe. Photos by Flickr user Barbara Buono, Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images, Mark Wilson/Getty Images and Flickr user Terry McAuliffe
This fall, two states will hold major elections -- New Jersey and Virginia. Each has statehouses controlled by a large majority with the opposing party trying to tip the balance in November.
This year in New Jersey the full legislature and governorship are up for election. With 121 seats up for grabs (40 in the Senate, 80 in the Assembly), fundraising has exponentially increased with $52 million raised so far, nearly double the amount in 2009. The report released by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission attributes the jump in early spending to independent special interests groups. Even though New Jersey is a traditionally Democratic state with the party holding roughly two-thirds of the legislature, they are playing serious business. Democrats have more than double the amount of cash on hand than Republicans, $9.1 million to $4.2 million.
At the top of the ticket is outspoken Republican Gov. Chris Christie, favored to win a second term. Christie outmatches his Democratic opponent state Sen. Barbara Buono in fundraising and public opinion. He's raised $6.8 million compared to Buono's $2.9 million and has received unprecedented financial support from outside groups.
In 2009 outside advocacy groups spent an estimated $14 million total, so far this year they've spent $13.5 million and ELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle estimates that number could reach $25 million. The figure includes Committee for Our Children's Future, which has spent $7.8 million, and the Republican Governors Association, which has spent $1.7 million.
Christie's popularity soared after Superstorm Sandy, and he continues to be favored among constituents, leading by 30 points in recent polls. With numbers that high, Christie has repeatedly been asked if he believes he'll break Tom Kean's record 40-point margin of victory. "I don't think you'll ever see another Republican coming near that," has been his response.
In the General Assembly the Democrats outnumber the Republicans 48 to 32. Six assembly members are not seeking re-election (four Democrats, two Republicans) and in the June primaries all incumbents breezed their way onto November's ballot. While Christie will rally for Republican control of the legislature, it's highly unlikely to come to pass. Incumbents are well-financed and entrenched in their communities - not a single Democratic incumbent has been unseated since 2007.
Christie will instead bring the fight to the state Senate in the hopes of finally getting his judicial nominees through, including two for the state Supreme Court. Democrats hold the majority of seats 24 to 16, and only in one district is an incumbent not on the ballot. That's Buono's seat. Republicans will focus on the competitive seats, including districts 1 and 2 in South Jersey, district 14 in central Jersey, and district 38 in North Jersey. Operatives also are keeping an eye on district 3 in South Jersey, currently held by state Senate President Steven Sweeney, and district 27 in Essex and Morris County.
New Jersey also will hold a special election to fill the late Frank Lautenberg's U.S. Senate seat. Christie's controversial decision to hold the election on Wed., October 16, just 20 days before the New Jersey state elections, had critics accusing him of political maneuvering. Democrats argue it could lead to voter suppression and prevents the possibility of Newark mayor and Democratic Senate candidate Cory Booker from appearing on the same ballot as Christie in November. Also, Democrats have said they believe the high-profile Senate race will increase voter turnout amongst Democrats, but are worried fewer Democrats will show up three weeks later to vote against Christie.
Christie said he chose the October date to give New Jersey residents a "choice and a voice" sooner, rather than waiting for the November 2013 or the following November 2014 election. The special election will cost New Jersey taxpayers an estimated $25 million.
The state Senate has since passed a bill that moves both state and federal elections to the same day in October. However, there's little chance of the legislation being signed into law with Christie saying the proposed bills will end up on the "ash heap."
At the top of the ticket this November are Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe battling to become Virginia's next governor in what has been called the "ugliest campaign in the country this year." Both candidates have done their fair share of mudslinging, taking aim at each other's ties to businesses. Democrats are hoping President Barack Obama's recent re-election victory in the battleground state will translate to a win for McAuliffe, but with a 30 percent lower voter turnout in non-presidential elections, Republicans believe the red-turned-purple state will stick to its conservative roots. They also are hoping it stays true to its modern-day tradition of backing the gubernatorial nominee of the party that does not hold the White House.
Also on the ballot are candidates for attorney general and lieutenant governor. Running on Cuccinelli's Republican ticket are state Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg for attorney general and Rev. E.W. Jackson for lieutenant governor. Democrats accuse the candidates of being too extreme and out of touch with Virginians. Jackson has made controversial comments about homosexuality and abortion, comparing Planned Parenthood to the Klu Klux Klan, among other things. The statewide candidates run separately, and Virginia has a history of splitting tickets.
Running alongside McAuliffe are state Senators Ralph Northam and Mark Herring. Northam, of Norfolk, is running for lieutenant governor, and Herring of Loudoun, will square off against Obenshain in the attorney general race. Virginia voters have not selected a Democratic attorney general since 1989.
As for funding, McAuliffe outpaces Cuccinelli, raising more than $3.7 million in the time between April 1 and May 29, compared with Cuccinelli's $2.1 million. The same backers who gave to Republican Governor Bob McDonnell's campaign in 2009 are not contributing to Cuccinelli's bid. McAuliffe on the other hand has a history of bringing in large sums for the Democratic National Committee and the Bill and Hillary Clinton's campaigns. Rasmussen Reports released a poll in early June showing McAuliffe leads by 3 points with 44% of voters pledging their support and 41% in support of Cuccinelli. The governor's race is in a dead heat where outspending your opponent becomes that much more important.
Outside those races, Virginia voters will be tasked with filling all 100 House of Delegates seats. And with an equally divided 20-20 state Senate, one group is gearing up for a legislative battle in the GOP-controlled House, which currently holds the majority of seats 67-31.
In an effort to continue Democratic gains in Virginia following the 2012 election, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and his liberal group Democracy for America, announced the launch of a "Purple to Blue Next Wave" program in Virginia. As an extension of DFA's Purple to Blue Project to change the power structure in state legislatures, the next wave will focus on Virginia races in the 12th, 31st, 60th, and 93rd legislative districts in the southwest, northern, and southeast regions.
Dean may be optimistic, but it is unlikely the party will unseat the vast majority of Republicans. Freelance Star reporter Chelyen Davis has been closely covering Virginia state politics for more than a decade and doesn't believe there will be much of a power change this year, if any at all. "I hate to burst Democracy for America's bubble on the House races, but I don't know that any of them will really change things up in Richmond," she said.
Davis said nearly half of the races are uncontested, and attributed the lack of competitive races to redistricting.
Republicans say they aren't threatened by DFA's efforts. State party spokesman Garren Shipley scoffed at the group as taking "counterproductive" actions in an interview with the NewsHour.
He said Virginia's electorate for the general election is largely different than the electorate that shows up for a presidential election. (Mr. Obama won the state twice, the first Democrat to do so in four decades.)
"We are thankful that they have tagged these candidates with a seal of approval because all we have to do is identify the Democrat candidates and say, oh yes, they are the candidates endorsed by Howard Dean," Shipley said. "[Voters] are looking for a Richmond mold, not a D.C. mold."
Update, July 11, 7 p.m.:
DFA's Neil Sroka writes in to push back on the GOP criticism of the group. He stressed the effort is a long-term one aimed at strengthening numbers and ending veto-proof Republican majorities, not attempting to quickly flip control of state legislatures. "We know that's not going to happen overnight and that's why we're committed to both investing over $750,000 to win premier races this cycle and building the grassroots infrastructure and crop of strong, progressive Democratic candidates in Virginia (and other states in 2014) that we know it will take to turn the state house blue in cycles to come," he said.