New Jersey and Virginia: a tale of two elections

BY Terence Burlij  November 4, 2013 at 9:10 AM EDT


President Obama delivers remarks at a McAuliffe campaign event at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia on Sunday. Photo by Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When voters in New Jersey and Virginia went to the polls in 2009, the question was what the results would mean for the White House, coming a year after the election of President Barack Obama. This time, the outcome of Tuesday’s contests in the Garden State and the Old Dominion are being watched for what they might say about the future of the Republican Party.

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Heading into Election Day, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appears to be cruising toward reelection, with the Republican leading his Democratic challenger Barbara Buono by a 64 percent to 31 percent margin in a Quinnipiac University poll released last week.

In Virginia, meanwhile, a Quinnipiac survey out Monday showed Democrat Terry McAuliffe running ahead of the state’s Republican attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, 46 percent to 40 percent. Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis received the support of eight percent of potential voters in the poll.

In 2008, Mr. Obama scored a 15-point victory in New Jersey and a seven-point spread in Virginia, only to see both of those states elect Republican governors — Christie and Bob McDonnell — the following year. Those GOP wins were followed by Scott Brown’s Massachusetts Senate special election triumph in early 2010 and the tea party tidal wave that swept many Republican lawmakers into office that November.

In winning reelection last year, the president took New Jersey by 17 points and edged Republican rival Mitt Romney by three points in Virginia.

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz suggests the decisions to be rendered in those two states could serve to reframe the conversation among Republicans about the way forward for the party following the past two presidential election defeats:

Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia will highlight both strains of Republican conservatism, with Christie representing one approach and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II — a tea party favorite and underdog in his race against Democratic businessman and fundraiser Terry McAuliffe — representing the other.

A loss by a tea party favorite in a swing state and a victory by Christie in a Democratic stronghold would probably set the terms for the next phase of the debate within the Republican Party about the way forward. If Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) has become the symbol of the GOP’s tea party wing, Christie is poised to become the anti-Cruz.

Christie was asked by Kelly O’Donnell of NBC News over the weekend if his expected victory would send a broader message to Republicans across the country.

“I’m not planning for it, I just think it’s inevitable,” Christie said. “I think you people look at elections, and they try to discern things from them about what they mean at that moment and what they mean for the future. And I think that what people are going to see is so unusual for what our party has created in the last couple of years that invariably people are going to draw lessons from it and I hope they do.”

Despite New Jersey’s strong blue tint in presidential campaigns, national Democrats have kept away from the gubernatorial contest, a sign of Christie’s strong advantage. Instead, they have soaked resources into Virginia, which has become a key battleground in the past two presidential cycles.

The president rallied McAuliffe supporters Sunday in voter-rich Northern Virginia, working to tie Cuccinelli to Republican lawmakers who he blamed for causing last month’s shutdown of the federal government.

“Lately, instead of rolling up their sleeves and working on the things that we can agree on together, you’ve seen an extreme faction of the Republican Party that has shown again and again and again that they’re willing to highjack the entire party — and the country and the economy — and grind progress to an absolute halt if they don’t get 100 percent of what they want,” Mr. Obama said.

The Democratic brigade in support of McAuliffe will continue Monday with Vice President Joe Biden, who will join the candidate at an event in Northern Virginia.

For his part, Cuccinelli will spend the final day of the campaign with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Politico’s James Hohmann writes that Cuccinelli’s campaign is holding out hope for a win on Tuesday, especially if turnout is low, despite an “unmistakable stench of impending doom.” He writes:

In politics, it is generally not a good omen when a candidate’s supporters argue that he still has a chance of victory — if the opponent’s supporters neglect to vote.

But this was Virginia Republican Party Chairman Pat Mullins’s version of the power of positive thinking in an interview this weekend. The path for star-crossed GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, Mullins said, looks like this: “If turnout is in the 30s, the low 30s, we’re gonna win. If it gets higher up in Fairfax [in Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia], say like 40, it’s likely we won’t. I don’t think it’s going to hit 40 anywhere. I’m looking at 32.”

For context, 72 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in last year’s presidential election and 40 percent voted in the most recent governor’s race.

Kwame Holman reported on the Virginia contest last Friday. Watch that report here or below.

LINE ITEMS

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Christina Bellantoni and Simone Pathe contributed to this report.

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Questions or comments? Email Christina Bellantoni at cbellantoni-at-newshour-dot-org.

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