Going from blue to red

Republican strategists are warning it won’t be an easy road to victory in the New Jersey and Virginia governors’ races, despite party hopes that wins in those two states could lead to a GOP comeback.

Party insiders are divided over which state presents the best GOP target. Both races feature strong Republican candidates, but both states have trended toward Democrats in recent years.

“It’s a pretty big deal if Republicans win both,” said Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster. “Winning two races in states that Democrats have done quite well in recently — states with two Democratic U.S. senators and Democratic governors — would indicate that the Republicans are making some gains.”

In New Jersey, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie (R) was leading in Tuesday’s Republican primary as of The Hill’s deadline. Republicans have long pined for a Christie candidacy, and early polls show him leading Gov. Jon Corzine (D) by a statistically significant margin.

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In Virginia, former Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) will face the winner of next week’s Democratic primary. Polls have shown McDonnell running slightly ahead of all three Democrats, including Democratic front-runner Terry McAuliffe, by wide margins.

But GOP strategists urge caution, saying the party should not get too excited too early.

“Virginia is the easier [to win] of the two. That’s not to say it’s going to be easy,” said David Norcross, the Republican National Committeeman from New Jersey.

Norcross said his home state would present Republicans with the biggest challenge this year. “There’s a registration hill to climb [in the Garden State], and our recent statewide successes are nil, whereas in Virginia they have consistently elected lieutenant governors and attorneys general,” he said.

Others disagreed, arguing that New Jersey’s governorship is most likely to wind up in Republican hands after November.

“The conventional wisdom is that New Jersey is a tougher row to hoe than Virginia for the GOP, but it may not be the case this year,” said Craig Shirley, a veteran GOP message maven. “Corzine has a record to run against, and between the massive corruption and incompetence associated with his administration, voters from the Vince Lombardi Exit to the Molly Pitcher Exit may be over their revulsion of the GOP enough by November to vote for Christie.”

Republicans have been burned by New Jersey before. Late polls showed state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R), ex-Rep. Bob Franks (R), businessman Doug Forrester (R) and former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler (R) running competitively in statewide races over the last decade. All four lost, even though Republicans dumped millions into their races.

“A lot of political folks around town consider New Jersey to be the national GOP’s big lie. Every few years a compelling case is made on how a Republican is going to win there, money flows up to one of the nation’s most expensive states to advertise in and every time, the Democrat machine renders the investment useless,” said one former Republican official. “ ‘Groundhog Day,’ Trenton-style.”

Virginia poses its own set of opportunities and challenges for the GOP. McDonnell has had an easy path to the nomination. And the state is more historically Republican than its recent history would indicate. Despite Democratic wins in recent statewide races, Virginia still has a significant swing voter population McDonnell can woo in a general election.

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But Republicans have had trouble in the commonwealth of late. The party has lost the last elections for Senate and governor thanks largely to a booming population in Northern Virginia that votes overwhelmingly Democratic. President George W. Bush was the last GOP winner in the state; before that, it was former Sen. John Warner (R), who won reelection handily in 2002.

While off-year governors’ elections are rarely a harbinger of a major political turnaround — GOP wins in 1993 were the last indication of a coming political wave — they can present danger for Republicans this year.

“Far too much is always read into the outcome of off-year gubernatorial races,” said Jennifer Duffy of The Cook Political Report. Duffy said it would “be a stretch” to call a GOP win in New Jersey the sign of a resurgence, but that a loss in Virginia “will be more stinging.”

“It would give a lot of credibility to the Democrats’ argument that they have flipped Virginia” to a blue state, she said.

Republicans say winning just one state would still allow them to make the argument that the party is on its way back from the brink. If that victory comes in New Jersey, the GOP will be able to claim signs of life in the Northeast, pollster McHenry said.

But if the GOP can’t pick up either seat, the party is set for another round of soul-searching.

“Republicans are going to have an expectation level, and that expectation level is that we need to win one of them,” said Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and a candidate this year for the Republican National Committee chairmanship. “If we don’t win either one of those races, it will provide a fundraising challenge to us in 2010.”

Dawson pointed to a special election earlier this year in New York, in which Rep. Scott Murphy (D) narrowly defeated a Republican assemblyman in a GOP-leaning district. Dawson called that loss “the first line in the sand we didn’t meet” and said it had cost the party millions of dollars in fundraising.

Added Norcross: “In a two-party system, there are no death knells. There are calls to arms and there are maybe funerals, but there are no death knells.”

“It’s too early to say this is setting any kind of trend for 2010 Senate and House races,” said Jason Miller, a GOP strategist with ties to Virginia. “So far, there isn’t an anti-Democratic backlash or a severe slide in Obama’s poll numbers, but all that can change.”