Twenty-four years. That’s how long it’s been since the party in power won either the New Jersey or Virginia governorships. Even more striking – the last time the party in power won the Virginia governorship was 1973.
And after losing the White House, Congress and every targeted Governors race since 2007, national Republicans desperately need a victory. They’re eyeing – and hyping – these two governors’ races as the start of their comeback. In their favor: history, political conditions, record-breaking spending and a tough economic climate.
If Republicans can’t win both races with the wind at their backs, their top recruits on the ballot, multi-million dollar investments and history in their corner, that will tell us a lot about whether Americans really want a Republican comeback.
In fact, if today’s Republicans can’t win both of these races, they will be the first opposition party in a generation to break the 2-and-0 winning streak.
So the biggest question for observers of these races is not what these races mean for Democrats but what they tell us about the GOP.
We’ve known from the beginning of this year that Democrats had an uphill battle to victory. Not only is it a challenge to break a five-cycle winless streak, but Democrats are also defending two seats in the midst of the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Despite all those difficulties and with just days left until Election Day, Democrats are in a stronger than expected position to break the streak. In Virginia, the Democratic nominee remains within striking distance, with more than half a million newly registered Democrats on the table. After months of observers calling it a foregone conclusion that Republicans were bound to win New Jersey, the race is a dead heat.
Below is a briefsummary of DGA activities in 2009, as well as a collection of insights from GOP leaders about what winning Virginia and New Jersey means to their party.
In their own words
From the moment they lost the Presidential election, Republicans have been hyping the off-year governors’ races as the dawn of their comeback. They’ve poured record-breaking resources into both races, outspending national Democrats because they desperately need a victory to energize their base after years of losses.
Republicans have been trumpeting their prospects in Virginia and New Jersey for a year, with the GOP’s leaders making the case that these races will set the stage for a conservative revival. On the eve of Election Day, a few of their statements stand out:
“Governors are again key to our comeback.”
— Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, RGA Chairman
“The RGA is helping lead the conservative comeback beginning this year, and its involvement in the East Coast races is significant.”
– Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin
Facebook, Oct. 27, 2009
New Jersey “is a bellwether in so many ways for the future of our party.”
–Michael Steele, RNC Chairman
The Washington Times, 8/23/2009
“We already are seeing the Republican resurgence in this country, but it is going to be affirmed and we are going to get great momentum from the victories we’re going to have in New Jersey and Virginia this fall.”
— Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, RGA Vice-Chairman
The DGA began the year understanding the difficulty of the 2009 landscape and made strategic decisions to boost critical election infrastructure and challenge Republicans. While the DGA spent more in Virginia and New Jersey than ever before in the committee’s history, the Republican Governors Association still outspent the DGA nearly 2-to-1, spending $13 million.
The global economic downturn hurt New Jersey, but Gov. Jon Corzine is campaigning on his record as a leader who is willing to make the right decisions when it matters most. Gov. Corzine has expanded health care to 100,000 children, invested in new schools and trimmed the size of government.
His opponent, GOP darling Chris Christie, tried to run on an ethics platform but a laundry list of controversies unmasked him as a candidate who had one set of rules for himself and another for everyone else. Christie, a Bush Republican who embraces the failed economic policies of the past, refused to release any specific plan for governing.
To help even the playing the field, the DGA spent $3.3 million in New Jersey – more than ever before in the state – with major contributions to candidates and party committees to help them build an effective, statewide, Get-Out-the-Vote effort that can make the difference in a close election. The DGA also made contributions to independent progressive organizations such as New Jersey Progress and the Mid-Atlantic Leadership Fund that spent $4 million on issue ads about government ethics and Chris Christie’s health care plan that allows insurance companies to cut benefits for New Jersey women and children.
For months during the summer and into the fall, pundits all but declared the race over, saying that Christie would win in a walk and give the thirsty GOP base a shot in the arm. After educating voters about his record and Christie’s stance on the issues, Gov. Corzine has turned the race into a dead heat. Analysts such as the Cook Political Report have even described his campaign as what appears to be a “remarkable comeback.”
Voters in the Commonwealth have long rejected the party in power in the White House when they vote for governor. As a red-tinged purple state where Democrats have only recently had success, the landscape in the Commonwealth is tilted heavily in favor of Republicans.
The DGA set out to accomplish a titanic task – occupy GOP nominee Bob McDonnell during a contested Democratic primary to give the party’s nominee the best possible start in the general election. The DGA served as Republican Bob McDonnell’s general election opposition during the contested Democratic primary during the spring, earning kudos for “stalking and bedeviling” the unopposed GOP nominee, according to the Associated Press. The DGA contributed $3 million to Common Sense Virginia, an independent Virginia state pac to educate voters about McDonnell’s real record on jobs and the economy, tripling voters’ negative perceptions of him and forcing him to spend more than $2 million before his uncontested primary in June.
National observers, such as Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, commented that DGA was “filling a critical role – ensuring that McDonnell isn’t allowed to make a positive imprint with the state’s voters while its own candidates bash each other relentlessly.” Cillizza added on May 29:
DGA Keeps McDonnell Honest
: [Common Sense Virginia] has launched a new ad — its third — hammering Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) as a job killer…Says the ad’s narrator: “Bob McDonnell: A Jobs Governor? You’ve got to be kidding.” The ad is part of a continuing attempt by the DGA to ensure that McDonnell doesn’t get a free pass on introducing himself to Virginia voters while the three Democratic candidates…bash one another…. Polling suggests
McDonnell would start the general election with a lead over any of the trio of Democrats.
As Cillizza notes, before the DGA’s efforts began, all the Democratic contenders were losing to McDonnell by double digits. When the DGA’s successful primary opposition campaign ended, Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds was beating McDonnell by several points in head-to-head polling.
The DGA also contributed more than $1 million directly to Deeds, who has been endorsed by the Washington Post and McDonnell’s hometown newspapers for offering realistic, pragmatic leadership, not bogus plans.
Virginians face a stark choice Tuesday between moving the state forward and going backward, especially on issues like creating jobs, strengthening the economy, investing in schools, improving transportation and standing up for women’s rights. Deeds remains within striking distance of victory and can still tap into more than half a million new Democratic voters who went to the polls to cast a ballot for President Obama.
Looking ahead to 2010
The 2010 cycle is the most important election in a generation, as it could reshape the political landscape for decades to come. Nearly 4 in 5 Americans will vote for a Governor, most of whom will have a say in Congressional redistricting. Republicans are targeting these Governors races in the hope of redrawing the district lines and gerrymandering their way into 30 House seats.
To fight back, nearly four years ago the DGA launched Project 2010, a strategic operation to lay the foundation for success in the 37 governors’ races this year. Under the disciplined plan, the DGA is breaking our all-time fundraising records so we can spend substantially more per race than ever before in our history. We are recruiting top-tier candidates in key states. We are contributing early and strategically in battleground states.
Although the landscape remains uphill as Democrats prepare to defend 19 governorships in 2010, the DGA is in a better position than ever before to protect our incumbents, expand our ranks and ensure a fair redistricting process.