Republicans see hope in Va., N.J. gubernatorial elections

Even if Republicans can’t get a win next week in upstate New York, they’ll have two golden opportunities later this year.

Tuesday’s special election for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) former House seat is being billed as the next big bellwether for the 2010 elections and a potential shot in the arm for Republicans, but a pair of governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia are presenting equally solid takeover opportunities.

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And for a party that has only flipped one Senate or governor’s race in the last four years, a win is a win.

The 2009 off-year election features just two gubernatorial races. In both, Republicans appear to have a solid shot at taking the top jobs.

While Democrats sort out a crowded primary in Virginia and are running an unpopular incumbent in New Jersey, Republicans feel good about their chances running a proven statewide winner in the Commonwealth and a well-regarded U.S. attorney in the Garden State.

One Democrat said the party is battling “a headwind.”

Though governor’s races are often less indicative of the national picture than federal races, Republicans point out that their huge gains in 1994 were preceded by gubernatorial takeovers the year before in two states: New Jersey and Virginia.

“The 1994 Republican Revolution was foreshadowed by” those wins, said Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association. “If we win those this year, we will have a lot of people talking about that.”

New Jersey Democratic strategist Tony Bawidamann, who has also worked in Virginia, said voters are outraged in much the same way they were in 1993 and 1994, but he said the difference is that it’s not focused on Democrats.

“It was a perfect storm of issues that ran against Democrats in 1994,” Bawidamann said. “Are they going to make close races in Virginia and New Jersey? Absolutely. But it’s not for anything that they’re doing.”

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has seen his stock drop in recent months thanks to the state’s budget and economic woes. Two independent polls this month peg his approval at just 40 percent, with close to half of voters disapproving.

Those same polls both showed Republican former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie with a nine-point lead in the race.

State Republicans are getting excited, but not too excited. New Jersey is notorious for polling close and tempting the GOP to dump money into top-of-the-ticket races there.

Without fail, the state has failed to deliver on that investment.

A GOP consultant who worked one of those races isn’t yet convinced Christie is the guy to change all that, but said that the numbers are positive.

“Here’s the good news for Republicans: You have to go back to September 2002 to find another [Quinnipiac] poll that showed a Republican on the statewide ballot leading a Democrat,” the consultant said.

That 2002 poll showed Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) trailing by double digits in the wake of ethics problems. He soon dropped out, and Democrats won the race with former Sen. Frank Lautenberg on the ballot.

Democrats don’t yet know who will be their standard-bearer in Virginia, as former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and two state legislators wage what is expected to be a tight primary.

Waiting in the wings is state Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R), who spent more then a decade in the state House before winning his current office in 2005 by just 360 votes out of about 2 million cast.

In that race, he defeated state Sen. Creigh Deeds, who is one of the three Democratic contenders for governor. Public Policy Polling has shown Deeds running third, with McAuliffe and former state Del. Brian Moran several points ahead in a statistical tie.

The primary is set for June 9, one week after New Jersey’s, where Christie faces a GOP primary match-up in which he is favored heavily.

A Rasmussen poll in Virginia from last month showed McDonnell beating all comers by single digits and holding much better favorability ratings.

Republicans hope a dirty Democratic primary can continue to push the numbers in that direction, but former Virginia GOP Chairman Patrick McSweeney said the race will be close.

McSweeney said his state party still has some work to do to recover its former dominance in the state, which went for President Obama by 6 percent in 2008.

“There was a greater fatigue factor in ’06 and ’07 than there is now, but there is still a fatigue factor,” McSweeney said, noting that activists are still hesitant. “A lot of it depends on what happens at the national level.”

As much as governor’s races are often decided on state-level issues, Virginia’s proximity to Washington and New Jersey’s proximity to Wall Street have contributed to the nationalization of those races this year.

In New Jersey, it’s clear that Corzine’s former role as CEO of Goldman Sachs will become an issue as the campaign rolls on, though Republicans feel they have plenty of ammunition already.

Republicans are also bringing the Employee Free Choice Act — a federal union-organizing bill — and offshore drilling into the Virginia governor’s race.

New Jersey Democratic consultant Pat Politano noted that the two states’ gubernatorial races are always talked about in such a vein, because of their proximity to the presidential election.

“You can find national meaning if you want,” Politano said. “In most cases, it seems to me, they are determined on issues specific to those states.”

Democratic Governors Association spokeswoman Emily DeRose said Republicans are setting themselves up for a pair of must-wins.

“They have gone out of their way to nationalize these races; this is how they say they are going to expand their ranks in Congress,” DeRose said. “No question that, after the last two cycles, if you’re them, you have to win these races.”