This year, Republicans have an exceptional opportunity to knock off New Jersey Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, whose popularity has plummeted alongside an ailing state economy that has necessitated painful budget cuts.
According to a poll taken last week, Corzine trails both Republicans vying for the GOP nomination in the June 2 primary, an unusual and troubling sign for an incumbent.
But of the two off-year gubernatorial elections that are taking place in 2009, it is Virginia, not New Jersey, that Republicans are pinning their hopes on. That's not to say that the GOP isn't paying attention to New Jersey or that the party isn't committed to winning the race. It's just that in ways that are subtle and not-so-subtle, Republicans are signaling that Virginia is the must-win race of 2009, a contest that will either begin the party's ignition sequence or reveal the full measure of its desperation.
The disparate political landscapes of the two states give rise to this calculus. New Jersey is extremely expensive to compete in and comfortably Democratic. Despite his vulnerability-and few doubt the seriousness of his predicament-Corzine will have the advantages of incumbency and his own considerable personal wealth to fuel his campaign.
Virginia, however, is a far more competitive environment, with a reliable base of GOP voters. There is no incumbent to contend with because Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine is prevented by term limits from running for re-election. Unlike in New Jersey, where there is a competitive Republican primary between candidates who have never won statewide office, the state GOP has settled harmoniously on Bob McDonnell, a former state attorney general who leads all three prospective Democratic nominees in the polls.
Virginia is naturally more comfortable territory for Republicans, said Bill Pascoe, a Virginia-based GOP consultant who has worked on a variety of New Jersey campaigns since 2001, noting that the absence of an uncontested GOP primary gives McDonnell an initial advantage over the winner of the June 9 Democratic primary.
"Most people are assuming that McDonnell is going to have an easier time of it in Virginia than will the Republican nominee in New Jersey, and I think that's probably right," Pascoe said.
And if it seems like Republicans are eying Virginia, it's at least in part because there is more bang for the buck there, since it is much less expensive to compete there than in New Jersey, where candidates have to buy airtime in the high-priced New York and Philadelphia media markets.
Besides, Pascoe said, there is a tradition in New Jersey for candidates to use their first run for governor to heighten their name recognition in preparation for a second attempt if they lose-and this year GOP frontrunner Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney, is making his maiden bid.
New Jersey's dismal record of electing Republicans to statewide office also colors perceptions of the two races.
"Aside from a guy named Kean and a woman named Whitman, Republicans haven't elected anybody statewide in New Jersey since 1970," he said, referring to former governors Tom Kean and Christie Todd Whitman. "That's a god awful record."
The Republican Governors Association, which is hard at work in both races, doesn't concede that one race takes precedence over another. But it has already contributed over $2 million to McDonnell, which has helped his campaign take to the airwaves on television around the state.
RGA Executive Director Nick Ayers said that level of spending in Virginia is unprecedented at this point in the election cycle, comparing it to 2008 when the RGA spent an average of $600,000 on several competitive governors' races. The organization would not disclose how much they have spent on the New Jersey race, where they have been paying for radio and television ads, websites and direct mail fliers attacking Corzine.
"The media, for months, has called the question: Can Republicans come back?" said Ayers. "A win in Virginia - a state that Obama won - would signal that our ideas are still relevant and our policies are better than theirs." That explains why Virginia has already become a magnet for high-profile Republican surrogates, who have traveled there to campaign on behalf of McDonnell and other candidates. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the headliner at a Friday Virginia GOP fundraising gala, adding to a list of visits from GOP marquee names including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, and Fox News host Sean Hannity.
While New Jersey has seen its share of Republican star power too-both Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Romney's opponent in the 2008 presidential primary, have appeared on the campaign trail with Christie-many of the party's leading lights wouldn't necessarily be assets on the campaign trail in a Democratic, northeastern state.
There are also intangibles in the Virginia race that enhance its partisan value: Kaine, the outgoing governor, currently moonlights as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, while the Democratic frontrunner in the polls, Terry McAuliffe, is a former DNC chairman.
For many Republicans, it's hard to imagine a better morale-booster than defeating the pair in a key race on the doorstep of the Beltway.
Republican strategists say there is ample reason to believe the stars may be aligned for a Republican victory in Virginia where Democratic candidates state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, former Del. Brian Moran and Terry McAuliffe are mired in a messy June 9 primary.
Phil Musser, a Republican strategist and former RGA executive director, said he expected that McDonnell would face McAuliffe as the Democratic nominee, rather than Deeds or Moran, in an election contest that is sure to grab national attention.
"McDonnell has the opportunity to become a major voice in the Republican Party," Musser said. "If he wins, he's the dragon slayer who will have killed Terry McAuliffe and he will have proved the point that a Republican can still win in an increasingly purple state."
A victory, Musser said, would provide a "tremendous boost for the Republican Party nationally."
"If we can't win with McDonnell in Virginia we're in a tough spot because he's an 'A' candidate," he added. "The national party committee will be in this thing big -- deeper than any other governor's race at any other time in history."
Another Republican strategist, Chris LaCivita, a veteran of Virginia politics, said that he is seeing signs that interest among state party activists is high, pointing to this weekend's state GOP convention in Richmond.
"We have a non-competitive convention for governor at the top of the ticket, we have a non-competitive, challenged race for lieutenant governor and we have three-way race for attorney general, and we still have 10,100 voting delegates coming to the convention," LaCivita said. "At least it shows that there is some excitement and motivation among the base -- we ain't dead yet."
Democrats also sense Virginia's high stakes. In an effort to soften up McDonnell, the Democratic Governors Association has given nearly $3 million to Common Sense Virginia, a group that has mounted a fierce anti-McDonnell advertising campaign. Just hours after McDonnell claimed the GOP nomination Saturday at the annual state convention, the group fired off a press release titled "McDonnell Emerges as Weakened Nominee."
If the Republicans lose in Virginia it would be a huge setback. It would mean that the divisions that people are picking up in the Republican Party are real, and that the party is fractured," said Nathan Daschle, the DGA executive director. "It will be hard for Republicans to recruit for 2010 and mean that their prospects for 2012 would be more difficult."
Daschle's counterpart, Nick Ayers, said the stakes are just as high for the Democrats in a state where Barack Obama won by a roughly 6 percent margin in 2008, marking the first Democratic presidential win in Virginia since 1964.
"People are talking about expectations for us. My god, the governor of Virginia is the DNC chairman, Obama won both Virginia and New Jersey," Ayers said. "I think they are must wins for the Democrats."