Parties Watching 2009 Races for Clues

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 18, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

With the midterm elections more than a year away, all eyes are on this fall’s gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. But instead of simply tallying wins and losses, party operatives are digging below the surface for clues as to what the political environment will be like next year.

In Virginia, Republicans are watching how former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) performs in three Congressional districts that span three very distinct regions of the commonwealth: Southside (Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello’s 5th district), the Valley (Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s 6th district) and Southwest (Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher’s 9th district).

Republicans believe both Perriello and Boucher are vulnerable, but they’re looking for broader implications for other GOP-leaning districts that are currently represented by Democrats.

“If we get … to the Bush 2000 number in those regions then we will have ‘bounced back’ in our base areas,” according to one House GOP strategist, referring to George W. Bush’s vote totals in the 2000 presidential race. “That’s the first step toward getting healthy.”

George W. Bush received 55 percent in the 5th and 9th districts and 60 percent in the 6th in 2000, when he faced then-Vice-President Al Gore. But Democrat Mark Warner outperformed Gore’s percentage by at least 10 points in the trio of districts in his successful 2001 gubernatorial run. And Gov. Tim Kaine (D) did about 8 points better than Gore in the 5th and 6th when he was elected to the governor’s mansion in 2005.

Kaine equaled Gore’s 2000 percentage in the 9th only because it was GOP nominee Jerry Kilgore’s home district. In similar fashion, McDonnell may have a hard time racking up big margins in the Shenandoah Valley and southwestern Virginia because his opponent, state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D), is from the 6th district. But Republicans believe their nominee will do well.

Both parties are also looking at how specific demographic groups perform statewide, including suburban voters, seniors, African-Americans and college students. All of them were keys to President Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, both in Virginia and elsewhere, and they will go a long way in determining which party is successful in 2010.

If McDonnell does well in Loudoun, Prince William and Stafford counties in the Northern Virginia suburbs, as well as Henrico County (a Richmond suburb) and the city of Chesapeake, Republicans believe it could foreshadow their ability to win over suburban voters in other states for the first time in four years.

Seniors have traditionally been an important voting group in midterm elections because of their propensity to vote. And Republicans believe Democrats gave them a window of opportunity by mentioning Medicare as part of the broader health care reform debate.

Meanwhile, both parties are interested in how dramatic the drop in turnout among African-Americans and college students will be when Obama is not on the ballot this fall.

Plus, overall turnout in both states is likely to be even lower next year because of the absence of any statewide or legislative elections.

In 2001, the Republican National Committee used the off-year gubernatorial elections to test-drive its 72 Hour Task Force. The RNC targeted areas with different get-out-the-vote tactics in an effort to hone its ground game for the 2002 midterm elections and ultimately Bush’s 2004 re-election. But this year, Republicans are taking a different approach.

“We’re done with experimenting,” one Republican strategist said. “We need to win.”

In the end, the RNC will spend at least $7 million in Virginia to help McDonnell take over the governorship after eight years of Democratic control. At least $5 million of that total will be spent on the ground in what one strategist called a massive, “Obama-style” get-out-the-vote effort.

“It’s an acknowledgement that the Obama campaign was in every way superior than the McCain campaign at getting people to the polls,” said the GOP strategist, referencing Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) failed bid for the presidency.

The Democratic National Committee, led by Kaine has also committed $5 million to the race.

But with Democratic nominees in both New Jersey and Virginia down in the polls, and facing the real possibility of losing both states, Democrats are quicker to downplay the 2009 results and much slower to draw any conclusions for 2010.

“The race will be decided by Virginia voters,” said one DNC official trying to set expectations low. “We’re not using it as any sort of litmus test.”

Strategists on both sides of the aisle do seem to agree that the New Jersey race is more an anomaly than a road map to the midterm elections.

“New Jersey is tougher,” according to one House GOP operative. “It appears to be more of a referendum on [incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon] Corzine than anything else.”

If former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie (R) defeats Corzine, it will be Republicans’ first statewide victory in more than a dozen years. Christie will need Democrats to cross over in order to win, but that doesn’t mean GOP candidates nationwide should expect Democratic support in next year’s midterms.

House Democratic strategists aren’t dismissing the New Jersey results entirely. They’re interested in the 3rd district, where Rep. John Adler (D) took over a Republican-held open seat in 2008 and could potentially be vulnerable next year.

There is a danger in projecting 2010 results simply based on 2009 outcomes. When Republicans won New Jersey and Virginia in 1993, it was the beginning of a tidal wave that reached its peak a year later. But when Republicans lost New Jersey and Virginia in 2001, they still made limited gains in 2002.

Even if they lose both governorships this fall and the expected special election in New York’s 23rd district, Democrats don’t consider the whole year a loss. They held New York’s 20th district in a competitive special election this spring, held a state House seat in Iowa, held a state Senate seat in Louisiana and took over a state Senate seat in Kentucky.

Rest assured that the party that wins big this fall will say it’s just a taste of what’s to come next year. The party that loses will be channeling former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) and dusting off the “all politics is local” mantra.