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Virginia and New Jersey 2013- No Indicator for 2014

There are two gubernatorial races this year- Virginia and New Jersey. In 2009, Republicans won both those races, Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey. In 2009, these GOP victories were seen as a portent of things to come in 2010. On its face, one could make that case. The 2010 GOP congressional landslide (at least in the House) coupled with the victory of Scott Brown to the US Senate in decidedly blue Massachusetts are tacit confirmation of this belief. But, 2013 is decidedly different for several reasons. In New Jersey in 2009, Christie was running against an ethically-challenged Jon Corzine who was just too much for even jaded New Jersey voters. Additionally, Christie was relatively new and his style was like a breath of fresh air. In Virginia, the situation was different. Bob McDonnell basically ran unopposed for his party’s nomination while there was a three way race among eventual winner Creigh Deeds and two others- Moran and McAuliffe. Coming out of that primary, Deeds was damaged while McDonnell entered the race unscathed and well-funded and cruised to victory with 58% of the vote.

In the interim, there has been a round of redistricting that has, quite frankly, entrenched and shored up the political divisions that exist in the state of Virginia. Some describe Virginia as “changing,” of becoming less conservative and more moderate. That may be true of the immediate DC suburbs, but the further one moves out, the state is still rather conservative. Today, on the national scene, it is considered a swing state having twice opted for Obama over the Republican nominees. This year’s race pits GOP state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli against former DNC chairman, Terry McAuliffe. If one is to believe the bulk of recent polls, McAuliffe has established himself as the front runner at this point with a little less than two months to go. Cuccinelli is an unabashed and unapologetic conservative. The liberal media is trying hard to link him to an alleged “scandal” involving Bob McDonnell, which is generally par for the course for the liberal media outlets that dominate the DC market. Cuccinelli is also being cast as “out of the mainstream,” which has an air of truth only with regards to the more liberal DC suburbs. But, he is actually more in line with Virginia sentiments once one moves away from DC. On the other hand, McAuliffe is being portrayed as a person with no real ties to Virginia- a political hack and fixer and a flim-flam artist. If push comes to shove, Ken Cuccinelli is more “Virginia” than Terry McAuliffe.

Conversely, in New Jersey Chris Christie is poised to cruise to victory in November. Already the usual liberal culprits are aligning against him- the NJEA, SEIU, and other unions- and their advertisement campaigns are falling on deaf ears. One thing is clear: Chris Christie as a Republican is a world of difference from Ken Cuccinelli as a Republican. In a state like New Jersey, a Ken Cuccinelli would have little chance of winning a statewide office. And I quite frankly doubt that a Chris Christie would win a statewide race in a more somewhat genteel state like Virginia with a larger conservative base. For the sake of argument, let’s just say that both Cuccinelli and Christie win their races this November. It would be foolish to make an assertion that this is an indication of the direction the 2014 midterm elections will take. Should Cuccinelli win, it is no rebirth of the Tea Party flexing its political muscle. Likewise, a Christie victory is no guide for GOP future successes in other states, although a “moderate” Republican likely stands a better chance on the West Coast and the Northeast. As proof, although Christie will likely win, Democrat Corey Booker is expected to win the special Senate election in a cake walk.

At Sabato’s Crystal Ball, there is an excellent analysis of both the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial election outcomes and the alleged effects on the following year’s midterm elections. In recent times (since 1965) in Virginia the trend seemed to be that the party that won the gubernatorial race was the loser in the ensuing midterm election. For example, after the 1965 election of Democrat Mills Goodwin, Republicans gained 47 seats in the House in the 1966 midterms. Likewise, when Republican John Dalton won in 1977, Democrats won 26 seats in the 1978 House midterm elections. There are only three instances where this trend failed to occur to an extensive degree (a greater than 10 seat gain)- Chuck Robb in 1981, George Allen in 1993, and Bob McDonnell in 2009. If we are going to use the Virginia gubernatorial election as a means to divine the following year’s midterm outcomes, it would spell large defeats for the GOP in the House, but that would be an unwise strategy and theory.

New Jersey is different from Virginia in one major aspect- Virginia does not allow a Governor to serve two consecutive terms. Even still, the same trend is seen in New Jersey as the one in Virginia. For example, when Democrat Richard Hughes won in 1965, Republicans gained 47 seats in the House the next year. Thomas Kean, a Republican, won in 1981, but the Democrats gained 26 seats in the House the next year. The only exceptions to this trend of a “major” nature were: Brendan Byrne in 1973, Christine Whitman in 1993, and Chris Christie in 2009. If anything can be drawn from this it is the fact that 2009 was an unusual year and for good reason. The country was emerging from a severe recession and the response from the top- Obama- was being rejected by the voters. That disapproval centered around the Obamacare debate and this is further validated by the Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts. If one remembers accurately, the Brown election shifted the dynamic of the Obamacare debate and denied Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. They then shifted tactics and went the budget reconciliation route. It should also be noted that after that vote on Obamacare, Democrats were held accountable by the electorate that following November when they suffered large losses in the House. In short, the political atmosphere vis-a-vis controversial legislation like Obamacare is lacking in this cycle.

This means that if McAuliffe wins in Virginia, it is not necessarily a “message” for alleged moderation, especially in “swing” states, nor is it a rubber stamp of Democratic policies and their legislative agenda. By the same token, a Cuccinelli victory is not an affirmation of Tea Party or conservative principles retaking root in Virginia and, by extension, “swing states” in general. Instead, using the 2013 gubernatorial election results in New Jersey and/or Virginia cannot be used by either those on the Left or the Right as “making a statement.”

Along those same lines, the portrayal of Ken Cuccinelli as some crazed conservative ideologue is likewise misplaced. There is no doubt of his conservative bona fides. However, like any governor, he has to deal with a legislature. Currently, the Virginia state senate is evenly split 20-20 between Democrats and Republicans and that will not change until the 2015 elections. In the House of Delegates, Republicans hold a 67-31 advantage, but all the seats are up for grabs this November. A Cuccinelli victory coupled with a GOP loss in their lower chamber could be interpreted as a preference for Cuccinelli over McAuliffe, but not necessarily all of his policies. A McAuliffe victory coupled with a GOP loss in the House of Delegates, however, could be confirmation of the general view that Virginia is becoming less conservative in the overall sense. A McAuliffe victory coupled with minimal GOP losses, GOP gains, or the status quo could be interpreted as a rejection of Cuccinelli the man, but not necessarily his policies or conservative principles. If anything, to determine the apparent direction of Virginia for 2014 and beyond, one should more accurately look at the Virginia House of Delegates election results this November.

Because of the 2010 census and resulting redistricting in New Jersey, the entire state Assembly and state Senate are up for election. Currently, the Democrats hold a 48-32 advantage in the state Assembly and a 24-16 advantage in the state senate. Despite redistricting, that is not expected to change dramatically this year which indicates that Christie’s impending victory will not be a referendum on his policies or those of a moderate Republican, but a referendum on Christie, the man. This is confirmed by the fact that overall, Christie has job approval ratings among New Jersey voters somewhere in the 60-70% range. Equally impressive is the fact that he has rather high ratings among Democrats, Republicans and independents, although in certain areas- the economy, jobs and taxes- his ratings are rather low across political ideologies.

The bottom line is mainly Virginia this year and results from New Jersey can simply be discounted in any analysis of how results in November will play out in the 2014 midterm elections. If Cuccinelli wins, we can fully expect predictions that 2014 will be another runaway year for Republicans nationally, another repudiation of the policies of Barack Obama, and a resurgence of Tea Party power. People would be well-advised of the fact that Ken Cuccinelli was Tea Party before there was a Tea Party. Conversely, if McAuliffe wins, then we will hear about the resurgence of the Democratic Party in a key swing state and that this is the beginning of things to come as concerns the Democratic Party’s electoral success in the South. Political pundits will be using a McAuliffe victory to rethink how vulnerable southern Senators like Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor will prevail in 2014. Because of McAuliffe’s very close relationship with the Clintons, expect to hear about Hillary’s 2016 prospects as well in case of a McAuliffe victory.

In conclusion, the only conclusions that can be drawn from these off-off year elections is that except in very rare instances, these elections predict nothing. More is dependent on major factors largely outside the control of two Governors- incidents like Watergate and Obamacare. And although Obamacare and defunding it are certainly in the news and although the Obama administration is certainly inept when it comes to foreign policy and is residing over the weakest recovery from a recession in US history, and the fact there are no shortage of “scandals” with this administration, none of these factors are so gross as to lead anyone to make 2014 midterm predictions from 2013 gubernatorial results in Virginia and New Jersey.

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