Election Slugfest 2009

Democrats on the defensive

Yeah, it seems like we only just got done with an election, but for the professional political types, campaigning is a 24/7 proposition.  And this is one of those odd off-year election seasons. While the congressional mid-terms and many statewide contests occur next year, there are two states that have campaigns with national implications in 2009. 

On Tuesday, Virginia state senator Creigh Deeds won a hard-fought Democratic primary to earn the right to take on Attorney General Bob McDonnell in the governor's race.  Most pre-primary polls have McDonnell leading Deeds by as many as a dozen points. But, in comparison to what's going on in New Jersey, Virginia Democrats should be smiling.   

One week ago, former U.S. attorney Christopher Cristie won a Republican primary to set up a November fight against unpopular incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine. A poll released Wednesday shows Christie leading Corzine by ten percentage points. The incumbent's "approval" rating is at 36-56.  While the recession has hit the Garden State hard, Corzine's raising of taxes is what is causing him the biggest headaches.

State races during off-years actually turn on local and regional conditions. But, inevitably, the outcome becomes boasting material for whichever party emerges as the victor. In 1993, Republicans swept the big races -- Christie Todd Whitman ousted unpopular incumbent Jim Florio (who had raised taxes); it was the Virginia governor's race where George Allen defeated Mary Sue Terry; and in New York City, Rudy Giuliani defeated incumbent Mayor David Dinkins. The Republican National Committee -- chaired at the time by now-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour -- crowed that this was a clear repudiation of Bill Clinton.

Those wins, in turn, helped raise the confidence of the GOP, which helped raise funds for the party committees and individual candidates. One year later, armed with the Contract With America, Republicans swept into power and ended the Democrats 40-year rule of the House of Representatives. The GOP also won the Senate and gained a majority of governorships as well.

The stakes are hardly that high this year (for one thing, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is not as aligned with the national GOP in the way that Giuliani was sixteen years ago). Nonetheless, bet that Republicans will make the elections a referendum on the popularity of Barack Obama and his spending/big government agenda.

In turn, the White House will be watching events in those states closely. Obama does have some advantages that Bill Clinton did not. For one thing, he won both New Jersey and Virginia (Clinton only won the former). For another, he is avoiding the cultural issues that helped drive down Clinton's popularity nationwide in '93.  For example, Obama has yet to act on lifting "don't ask, don't tell" in the military -- much to the frustration and anger of many gay supporters.  Of course, that inaction may serve Obama well in a still-conservative state like Virginia with its thousands of military voters -- thus aiding Deeds who hails from southern rural parts of the Commonwealth.   

For some people, the campaigns never end.

Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots. 

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