With a month to go until Election Day, national Democrats are increasingly optimistic about their chances to win the New Jersey governor’s race while cautious, or downright skeptical, about their prospects in the Virginia gubernatorial contest.
It’s a striking reversal from the conventional wisdom as recently as this summer, when Democratic-trending Virginia was seen as the better bet and top party officials were so worried about New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine’s prospects that there was talk of replacing him on the ballot.
The two marquee, off-year races—closely-watched every four years for implications about the standing of the president elected the previous November—now could produce results suggesting a return to a more familiar political landscape in the first year of the Obama era: Republicans returning to power in Virginia, a state known for its moderate conservatism, and Democrats keeping their grip in liberal-leaning New Jersey.
Asked in an interview with POLITICO about the New Jersey race, Democratic Governors Association chairman and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said flatly: “Corzine wins.”
Then the always-colorful Schweitzer stood up, reached into his pocket and shook a few coins, and doubled-down: “I bet whatever money is in my pocket he’s going to win.”
But the governor laid no wager on Virginia, where Democratic state Sen. Creigh Deeds is trailing Republican former Attorney General Bob McDonnell, saying only that it was up in the air.
“That’s a flip of coin, I don’t which way that one ends,” Schweitzer said.
Another senior Democrat was more blunt.
“I feel great about New Jersey, everything is moving in the right direction,” said this source.
Without being prompted, the Democrat added: “Virginia – not as much.”
Both races, however, remain fluid enough for the Republicans to win New Jersey and Democrats Virginia. There remain enough undecided voters to swing each contest and a month's time offers ample opportunity for another change in momentum.
The shift in perception was fueled this week by a debate in which New Jersey Republican nominee Chris Christie often found himself on the defensive and the release of three polls there showing Corzine, who has trailed in every survey, narrowing the gap with Christie into or near the margin-of-error.
The former Wall Street executive has spent millions of his own dollars tearing into Christie on TV, spiking the negative ratings of his challenger.
Democratic hopes for the Garden State—where voters are traditionally late-deciders—are also being lifted by the emergence of third-party candidate, Chris Daggett.
A former official in Republican Gov. Tom Kean’s administration, Daggett took 12 percent in one of the polls this week and that was before he turned in a solid debate performance Thursday, often teaming up with Corzine to hammer Christie as lacking policy plans.
Daggett—a classic take-your-medicine independent who is socially liberal—could provide an alternative to centrist voters who can’t stomach a vote for the unpopular Corzine but are hesitant to support an anti-abortion Republican. As a consequence, Democrats think they could eke out a narrow, plurality victory.
“His votes will come from Christie and he could maybe take 10 percent,” said the Democrat.
Christie, recognizing the peril, spent time in Thursday’s debate taking after both Corzine and Daggett, accusing both of having plans to levy higher taxes.
Corzine could also benefit from the underlying political dynamics in his state.
“Democrats outnumber Republicans,” is how Schweitzer put it. “That’s the key point.”
“This is still a state where the president is value-added,” noted the senior Democrat.
Indeed, Corzine repeatedly invoked Obama’s name in the debate, often doing so to make the case that Christie would have denied federal stimulus dollars to hard-hit New Jersey.
Obama appeared in the state for an early-summer rally when Corzine was struggling in what some saw as a one-and-done visit if he didn’t start showing signs of political life.
Vice-President Joe Biden is headed to New Jersey next week to stump for Corzine and sources tell POLITICO that Obama will definitely return to the state before Election Day. Also under consideration: sending First Lady Michelle Obama up to the Garden State, where she is extremely popular.
By contrast, national Democrats are growing more worried about their prospects in Virginia.
While there has been little polling other than by automated surveys, the race is seen as similarly competitive as in New Jersey –the difference is that Deeds is not moving in the same fashion as Corzine.
Top Democrats have concerns over both the Virginia Democrat and his campaign, especially their near-blanket focus on the controversial graduate school thesis penned by McDonnell.
“I thin he’s probably gotten as much as he’s going to get out of the thesis,” said a Democratic strategist who is following governor’s races. “The critical thing is that he turn the corner and put together a real positive message addressing voter anxieties.”
Another senior Democrat damned Deeds with praise for McDonnell.
“The Republican candidate, irrespective of the thesis, is quite skilled, and has been moderating his image, giving people the impression that he’s a thoughtful person who may have a plan,” said this Democrat. “And at the end of day, candidates matter.”
Virginia is also a state where Obama is less popular than he is in New Jersey.
While Corzine brought up the president’s name without prompting at his debate Thursday night, Deeds was equivocal when asked at his own debate last month if Barack Obama was his kind of Democrat.
“I’m a Creigh Deeds Democrat,” the Virginian replied, after acknowledging his support for the president on many issues.
Following the Virginia debate, Deeds was caught in a YouTube moment—now made into an ad—struggling to respond to reporters’ questions about his intentions on taxes and subsequently wrote a piece for the Washington Post indicating he’d sign a transportation bill – “even if it includes new taxes.”
When questioned about the Obama factor and the backdrop in which Deeds is running, a top Democrat shot back: “If I were in their shoes and had a candidate who fumbled the tax question and was stupid enough to write an op-ed saying I’m going to raise your taxes, I’d be complaining about [the environment], too.”
A source close to the Deeds campaign, while noting that it emphatically is a “tough environment,” said they believe that Obama is still a net asset despite his declining popularity in many corners of Virginia.
“The burden is on us to figure out how to deal with that environment,” said the Deeds source.
As for the thesis, the source close to Deeds noted that they had other ads on the air besides those focused on the issue, including one featuring Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, the most popular politician in the state.
“Having said that, we believe that one of biggest differences between these two candidates is McDonnell’s lifelong focus on social issues,” said the Deeds source. “Why stop what’s working? The [September] Washington Post poll had a 31-point swing among independent women from their poll in part because of the thesis.”
The president rallied and raised money for the Virginia Democrat in McLean this summer and Deeds’ campaign wants Obama to return to the commonwealth again, perhaps to rally voters in one of the two large media markets downstate, Richmond or Hampton Roads.
But asked if the president was planning on visiting Virginia again for Deeds, a senior Democrat familiar with White House thinking would only say: “We’ll see.”