First Look at Off-Year Elections in Virginia and New Jersey

BY Geoffrey Lou Guray  November 21, 2012 at 12:23 PM EDT

In Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, left, and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, center, will vie to be the Republican nominee for governor in 2013. The winner of that contest will likely face Democrat Terry McAuliffe, right, in the general election. Photos by Getty Images

Coming out of the 2008 election, the outlook for the Republicans was bleak. The Democrats won control of the White House and expanded their majorities in both houses of Congress. The Republican bench for future presidential elections looked thin. And the GOP faced the prospect of losing more ground in parts of the West and South that were once ruby red.

But just 12 months after that election came the first signs of a Republican turnaround. Chris Christie edged out weakened incumbent Jon Corzine in 2009 to become governor of solidly blue New Jersey. And in battleground Virginia, Bob McDonnell won almost 60 percent of the vote in his lopsided victory over state Sen. Creigh Deeds.

The Republicans are ending 2012 with a similar crisis of confidence, topped by presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s losses in all but one of the battleground states. How do Republicans see their hopes for a similar turnaround in 2013? Will the Democrats’ 2012 gains prove to be more durable this time around? Here’s the NewsHour’s first look at the off-year governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey.

VIRGINIA

The Virginia race lost a major player on Tuesday: U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, the state’s most popular politician, announced he would not seek a second term as governor. He likely would have had an easy path to victory if he chose to run: A Quinnipiac poll from Nov. 14 found that he had comfortable leads over his would-be rivals. But as legislators on Capitol Hill position themselves ahead of heated battles over debt reduction and other major issues, Warner said in his announcement on Tuesday that he hopes to help senators “actually try to find common ground so we can get stuff done.”

“I loved being governor, but I have a different job now,” he said, “and it’s here, in the United States Senate.”

Warner’s decision sets up a contentious three-way fight for the seat being vacated by the still-popular McDonnell, who is barred by state law from seeking a second consecutive term.

If McDonnell had his way, his successor would be Bill Bolling, the two-term lieutenant governor who set aside his own political ambitions during the 2009 governor’s race to give McDonnell a clean path to the Republican nomination. Bolling is not widely known in Virginia. The Nov. 14 Quinnipiac poll found that 54 percent of the state’s Republicans did not know enough about the lieutenant governor to form an opinion about him, despite his nearly seven years in statewide office. But he has boosted his public profile to some degree, while serving as the McDonnell administration’s “Chief Jobs Creation Officer” and presiding over an evenly split state Senate. Back in May, NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni and politics reporter-producer Cassie M. Chew talked to McDonnell and Bolling while their “jobs tour” passed through rural Southside Virginia.

Bolling’s rival for the Republican nomination is Ken Cuccinelli, the attorney general who is considered by many to be a rising star with the party’s conservative wing. Some of his moves as attorney general, including his quick filing of a court challenge to the Affordable Care Act, have attracted national attention, and as a result he has built up a name-recognition advantage over Bolling. (The same Quinnipiac poll found that only 34 percent of Virginia Republicans did not know enough about Cuccinelli to form an opinion.)

The Republican contest is sure to highlight ongoing tensions within the party between its establishment figures and its grassroots activists. The state party’s decision to choose a nominee at a convention, and not through a primary election, is perceived to help Cuccinelli, whose conservative supporters are more likely than Bolling’s to attend such an event.

And Bolling, for his part, is publicly embracing his position as the establishment candidate, presenting himself as the person best equipped to win in the general election.

“We have to nominate candidates who can not only energize the base of our party, but also can reach out to the more moderate independent voters,” Bolling told Politico on Nov. 7. “I think I’m the only Republican candidate for governor who’s actually electable next November,” he later added.

For the Democrats, the upcoming governor’s race will test the durability of the gains they made in 2012: President Obama held onto the state despite the Romney campaign’s best efforts to take it away, and in a Senate race featuring former governors, Democrat Tim Kaine prevailed over George Allen. But history is not on the Democrats’ side: No candidate from the party of the sitting president has won a gubernatorial race in Virginia since 1973.

The party’s hopes to break that streak now rest on the shoulders of Terry McAuliffe, the political fundraiser and former Democratic National Committee chairman. McAuliffe, the only Democrat so far to say he will run for governor, looks to rebound from his poor performance in the three-way Democratic primary three years ago. He led early in that race, but a nasty fight between him and then-state Delegate Brian Moran hurt them both and allowed Deeds to sweep to a surprisingly easy victory. (Moran went on to become chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party and announced last week he is stepping down from that post.)

NEW JERSEY

The 2013 governor’s race in New Jersey is still taking shape. No Democrats have come forward so far, and Christie himself has not yet formally announced that he will run for re-election. But the third-year governor remains popular in the state, said Jarrett Renshaw, a statehouse reporter for The Star-Ledger, after scoring significant policy victories involving the state’s pension system and property taxes. Christie has also become a major figure in national politics. He was the keynote speaker at this year’s Republican National Convention, and his name comes up frequently in conversations about possible 2016 presidential candidates.

But President Obama won New Jersey on Election Day by 17 points, and a Quinnipiac poll from October showed that with the right candidate, the Democrats have a fair shot at unseating Christie and weakening his prospects for 2016.

The most prominent Democratic name in the mix is Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who co-chaired the platform committee at this year’s Democratic National Convention and was given a speaking slot at the event. He is widely regarded as one of his party’s rising stars, and Renshaw said his entry into the New Jersey race could compel some of the other credible Democratic contenders to stay away. The Star-Ledger reported earlier this month that Booker will make a decision about the governor’s race in mid-December.

Another major player is state Sen. Richard Codey, who served as governor for 14 months after personal issues and an ethics scandal forced Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey out of office in 2004.

Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath are sure to have a significant impact on the race, despite the fact that it will not be decided until next November. Christie’s response to the storm was lauded by many, and he made national headlines by heaping praise on the president and the federal government’s disaster efforts. But the cleanup and rebuilding efforts will continue for months, if not longer, and public opinion of the governor could sag if storm-related problems in some communities persist.