Election ’09 – Gubernatorial Races

ELECTION ’09 – GUBERNATORIAL RACES…. There’s plenty to talk about from last night, but let’s start with the statewide races.

In Virginia, as expected, former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) cruised to an easy victory in the gubernatorial race, beating Creigh Deeds by 18 points, 59% to 41%. This was not a surprise — Deeds ran an odd, disjointed campaign — and was in keeping with recent history. For the last 32 years, the party that wins the White House has gone on to lose Virginia’s governorship the next year.

Those looking for key electoral indicators or evidence of larger national trends are likely to be disappointed. McDonnell went out of his way to run a moderate campaign, despite a conservative record, and kept the Tea Party crowd at arm’s length. The governor-elect ran away from his far-right background, and made sure that Sarah Palin — who offered to “help” — had nothing to do with his campaign.

In New Jersey, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie (R), who led most of the year in the polls, managed to hang on and defeat incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine (D), 49% to 45%. The only surprise here is that Corzine was able to come this close — the governor was widely unpopular throughout the state, has had approval ratings in the 30s all year, and is the chief executive of a state with the highest unemployment rate in more than three decades.

With voters in an anti-incumbent mood, the result wasn’t too hard to predict.

New Jersey is generally considered a fairly reliable “blue” state, but let’s not forget that while the Garden State may support Democratic presidential candidates, it tends to also support Republican gubernatorial candidates — in 16 of the last 28 years, New Jersey has had a GOP governor.

What’s more, Christie also ran to the center. In late October, the Republican campaign released a video featuring an Obama speech, almost making it seem as if the president and Christie were on the same side. In other words, characterizing the results as a public rebuke of the White House doesn’t just contradict exit polls, it also contradicts the Republican campaign strategy.

The temptation is to analyze the results in the larger national picture. That’s almost certainly a mistake. In November 2001, George W. Bush’s approval rating was in the 80s, and Democrats nevertheless won the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. Was it a hint of shifting political winds? Hardly — the 2002 midterms didn’t go especially well for Dems.

The DNC sent around an entertaining quote collection yesterday, featuring Republican reactions the last time Dems did well in the off-year gubernatorial races.

NRCC Talking Point: “The 2001 Off-Year Elections Have No Bearing On Next Year’s Mid-Term Elections. These Races Revolved Around Local Issues And Local Candidates. There Were No Discernable National Trends.” NRCC Talking Points: “The 2001 off-year elections have no bearing on next year’s mid-term elections. These races revolved around local issues and local candidates. There were no discernable national trends.” [Hotline, 11/7/01]

RNC Comm. Director: “It’s Laughable To Suggest That This Has Any National Implications.” Hotline noted that, GOPers “downplayed the two defeats.” RNC comm. dir. Trent Duffy: “It’s laughable to suggest that this has any national implications.” [Chicago Tribune, 11/7/01]

Likewise, Media Matters documented examples of news outlets and media personalities arguing that Democratic victories in 2001 had little national significance. Laura Ingraham, for example, said, “Both sides are going to spin this … but to say — to call this some kind of watershed moment against Republican views is nonsense.”

Sounds about right.