Turnout in Virginia, N.J. Could Be a Big Problem for Democrats

April 13, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

We’ve all been reminded repeatedly that Democrats face problems this year because of both the normal drop in midterm turnout and the mix of voters in nonpresidential years (See my “Democrats Face Challenges in Key Districts in 2010,” June 4, 2009). But those national problems will be magnified in a couple of states without high-profile races at the top of the ballot.

Democratic problems in both Virginia and New Jersey, where Republicans won governorships in November, could well be repeated in Congressional contests this year, in part because neither state has a statewide race on the ballot in November.

Republican strategists are bubbling with optimism about their chances of knocking off freshman Rep. John Adler (D) in New Jersey’s 3rd district, a south-central district that stretches from just north of Camden east to the Atlantic Ocean.

Adler won an open Republican seat 52 percent to 48 percent over Chris Myers (R), an unimpressive showing given the Democratic political wave and the fact that Adler spent $2.8 million on the race to Myers’ $1.2 million (and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee outspent the National Republican Congressional Committee by better than 2-to-1).

The district is fundamentally competitive. George W. Bush carried it 51 percent to 48 percent in 2004, while Barack Obama carried it 52 percent to 47 percent in 2008. In last year’s gubernatorial race, Republican sources say, Chris Christie (R) beat Gov. Jon Corzine (D) by 17 points, 56 percent to 39 percent).

Turnout in New Jersey is highest in presidential years, followed by off years when the gubernatorial election is held and then midterm election cycles. Sometimes, the midterm turnout is only slightly below the gubernatorial years — as in 2002, when 2.1 million Garden State voters cast ballots for Senator, compared with 2001, when 2.2 million cast their votes for governor. But sometimes the difference is stark — as in 1993, when 2.5 million voted for governor, and 1994, when just 2 million voted for Senator.

The last midterm election when there was no Senate race on the ballot in New Jersey was 1998. That year, turnout in individual House races was generally down 10,000 to 20,000 votes over the previous midterm election (when a Senate race was also on the ballot).

There were only two exceptions to this trend — in Democratic Rep. Donald Payne’s district, where turnout was already so low that it didn’t have far to fall, and in former Republican Rep. Mike Pappas’ district, where turnout in 1994 and 1998 was flat.

But Pappas was a controversial Republican incumbent in a year when Congressional Republicans overplayed their impeachment hand, and Democratic voters had reason to turn out, both to dump him and to express their outrage at Republican attacks on President Bill Clinton.

The lack of a statewide contest to generate interest and drive turnout could help the prospects of former NFL star Jon Runyan, the likely Republican nominee against Adler.

Often, as they did last cycle, Republican leaders in Burlington and Ocean counties quarrel over which county should produce the party’s nominee for Congress. But this time, both counties have lined up behind Runyan. Angry voters are likely to be more motivated, and that probably means more Republicans going to the polls.

In Virginia, the lack of a statewide contest could hurt as many as four Virginia Democratic House Members: Reps. Glenn Nye, Tom Perriello, Rick Boucher and Gerry Connolly.

Freshmen Nye and Perriello were swept into office during the ’08 Democratic wave, while Boucher, who is sitting in a district that gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) his best showing in the state (59 percent) during the White House election, has not faced a stiff challenger in years.

The state’s GOP nominee for governor last year, Bob McDonnell, won Nye, Perriello and Boucher’s districts with more than 60 percent of the vote, and he carried Connolly’s district by more than 10 points.

It’s difficult to compare turnout in Virginia in the 1998 election — the last time Members of Congress stood for election without a presidential or Senate contest above them on the ballot — to election years with statewide contests because seven of the state’s 11 House Members in the 1998 election ran without major party opposition in November.

None of the four who had opposition that cycle faced a serious threat, so the fact that they, like their unopposed colleagues, saw total turnout plummet doesn’t necessarily say something about turnout in 2010.

Still, Democratic strategists have to be worried about what effect the lack of a statewide contest will have on turnout. They certainly are aware of the problem, and they will be forced to pour additional resources into those districts to ensure that turnout in competitive Congressional districts doesn’t plunge.

None of this means that the endangered Democrats will lose. The two parties have very different views on the extent to which Adler is vulnerable, and the DCCC has the resources it will need to boost Democratic turnout in states where other races on the ballot could lull Democratic voters to sleep.

Still, with turnout a key factor, Democratic Party strategists will have to pay some additional attention to certain states, and New Jersey and Virginia will likely be on the list.