WASHINGTON – The national Democratic and Republican parties are pouring millions of dollars into the New Jersey and Virginia governors' races, hoping the November elections will determine more than the top state government executives in those states for the next four years.
National party operatives on both sides of the aisle have joined in what promises to be among the most expensive state campaigns in history in attempts to solidify their own party's standings before a contentious 2006 mid-term congressional election.
"If we want to build the Democratic Party, we have to have the commitment of doing so at the grassroots level," which means working from the ground up in the states, said Democratic National Committee spokesman Josh Earnest, who added that DNC chairman Howard Dean is committed to helping in the off-year state races.
"They're elections, and we want to win elections," said Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz.
The races — the only governor elections in the country this year — may also be used to measure the strength of the Bush presidency or the strength of his critics, and they could boost or destroy the aspirations of politicians riding on coattails.
But not everyone is convinced that the outcomes of the two November contests will have a palpable impact on next year's voting.
"Off-year races are used for bragging rights by the party that gains a seat or two, but the truth is, they are only sometimes an indicator of the future," says Larry Sabato (search), director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Breaking Down the Races
New Jersey and Virginia are far apart on the political spectrum. Consider this blue-state/red-state breakdown. In 2004 — the last statewide general elections — President Bush (search) won nearly 54 percent of Virginia's votes; Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry (search) won 45 percent. In New Jersey, Bush lost to Kerry, 46 percent to 53 percent.
Largely rural Virginia has been a traditional Republican stronghold, but Democratic Gov. Mark Warner (search) was able to wrest the political tide in his favor four years ago and maintains high approval ratings. Virginia law does not allow consecutive terms for the seat of governor, so Warner has thrown his formidable support behind his lieutenant governor, Tim Kaine (search).
Despite the backing, polls show Republican challenger Jerry Kilgore (search) is in a neck-and-neck race with Kaine. Kilgore was the state’s attorney general, also an elected post, until he announced his candidacy this spring. He is boasting his down-home roots and is attacking Kaine as a tax-and-spend liberal who is soft on immigration, abortion, gun rights and gay marriage.
Kaine is fighting back saying he is a Democrat who can play to conservative crowds just as well. As a former Catholic missionary, Kaine says he believes the death penalty is wrong, but he will enforce state laws to execute prisoners. He also says he will maintain state restrictions on abortion. He says he will continue with Warner's well-regarded management style to combat local issues such as traffic problems that plague many parts of the state.
Left out of much of the back-and-forth battles has been Russ Potts, a moderate Republican state senator who is running as an independent. A mid-September Mason-Dixon poll showed Kilgore at 41 percent, Kaine at 40 percent and Potts running at 6 percent, enough to make a difference in the outcome of the race.
New Jersey, a more urban, Democratic state, has had Republicans leaders in the past, including former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman (search), who later served on President Bush's Cabinet. But the majority of voters in New Jersey are Democrats, and a large independent contingent has traditionally swayed left as well.
In the race that is shattering spending records, both gubernatorial candidates are drawing on their large personal wealth. First-term Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine (search) is the front-runner for that state’s governor’s office.
The Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday showed Corzine ahead with 50 percent to Republican businessman Doug Forrester's (search) 43 percent. While polls show varying differences in how close Forrester is, Republicans are just happy it's not a blowout.
"No one expected him to be this close this soon," Forrester campaign director Sherry Sylvester said last week.
Forrester and Republicans say Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs Group (search) CEO, repeatedly has supported national tax increases in Washington while property taxes in his home state are 50 percent higher than the national average. They also say the opponent has little to show for his five years in Washington aside from a bill that commended the NHL's Devils and the NBA's Nets for winning their respective championships in 2003.
Corzine's campaign hits right back, saying his state tax plan gives money back to those who need it — the poor and elderly — while Forrester's plan will benefit only the wealthy. As for his congressional record, campaign officials note that Corzine has played an integral part on major legislation, including the formation of the landmark Sarbanes-Oxley Act (search) that put curbs on the accounting industry in the wake of the Enron scandal.
New Jersey corruption is also playing a hefty role in the race, with Corzine early in the campaign laying out his plan to clean up government, and Forrester saying Corzine's close ties to controversial figures like former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey (search), who left office last year in a torrent of scandal, make him unfit for office.
Despite the overwhelming focus on state issues by the candidates, national party leaders want to claim these states as their own. The Republican Governors Association (search) has written a check to Kilgore for $1.5 million. The Democratic National Committee is reportedly expected to spend more than $2 million in New Jersey. The spokesmen for both national parties declined to say how much their organizations would dole out.
To counteract the off-year election voter participation slumps, both parties are pulling out the stops via get-out-the-vote drives. Party celebrities for both sides are also showing up in each of the states for fundraisers and photo-ops. Among the notables are Bush and Kerry, former President Bill Clinton, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, among others.
National Issues Seep Into Local Politics
Political observers say a double-edge sword comes with national influence on the state races. The money and support are helpful, but the troubles for the parties on the national level could either taint or boost the candidates.
The Bush White House is under fire for a series of problems. Some, such as the probe into White House officials' roles in the leak of a CIA operative's identity, originate from inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Other problems facing Republicans include the recent indictments of Rep. Tom DeLay (search), R-Texas, who was forced to step down from his House majority leadership post while he defends himself against conspiracy and money laundering charges. A Securities and Exchange Commission probe into the timing of a stock sale by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) also is hurting the Republican image as a law and order party.
The DNC's Earnest said he believes the Republican problems will certainly shed a negative light on state Republican candidates.
"It's going to rub off on the candidates up and down the ballot," Earnest said. "When voters look at what Republicans have done in Washington, they're going to think twice about putting Republicans in charge of their own state capital."
But Republicans see the affiliation with the national party as a plus, and a way to help solidify the Republican stronghold in Congress and expand Republican leadership in the states. Twenty-eight states have Republican governors.
"It's to the benefit of our party to have people talking about reform, quality education ... bedrock Republican principles," Diaz said.
While the campaigns aren't borrowing from the national agenda to wage their state battles, one observer said it's just a matter of time before the statewide races start ramping up the rhetoric.
Patrick Besham, a senior fellow with the libertarian-minded CATO Institute (search), said that especially in Democrat-leaning New Jersey, the "culture of corruption" campaign being promoted by congressional Democrats might play well. Of course, the Republicans, who are playing that card locally, could do just as well.
Either way, "It's good stuff, but ... it can come back and bite both of them," Besham said.
Sabato said he's not so sure national politics will have any sway at all in these races.
"The national media will talk about (national problems) because it's something that everyone in all 50 states can understand, but the reality is these are minor factors," Sabato said. "These are local races. ... The issues tend to be less ideological than for Senate races or races for president. ... It's about potholes and streetlights."
A Political Weather Balloon
Besham and Sabato agree that the impact on the future isn't clear, but the varying scenarios that offer differing opportunities to influence local and national races.
"They could have a considerable impact, but they could have none whatsoever," Besham said.
If Democrats take both offices, Besham said they can use the victories to say "the bloom is really out of the Bush rose, and that Democrats can govern in both blue and red states effectively." If the Democrats lose in Virginia, but win in New Jersey, the parties might call it a draw, with both states voting along their political affiliations.
But Besham says the stakes appear higher for Democrats than Republicans. Warner, Virginia's current governor, is a potential 2008 presidential candidate, and is being eyed by national party leaders as a centrist who might be able to help sway the tide away from a Republican-controlled Congress next year.
Should Warner's pick for governor lose, Warner's political capital could also lose some of its value, Besham added. On the other hand, a win for Republicans in the state could give a boost to the likely 2008 presidential bid of Virginia Sen. George Allen (search).
Likewise in New Jersey, if Forrester wins, party officials would see it a partisan prize.
"That's really the story, that New Jersey isn't a slam dunk," Besham said. If Republicans win, "They will certainly milk that for everything they can."
Sabato said that while politicians like to thump their chests over races like next month's, and will say they have the upper hand going into the next elections, the historical record is unconvincing.
In 1993, Republicans picked up both New Jersey and Virginia governorships, as well as the New York mayor's office with Rudy Giuliani. Maybe that was a precursor to the 1994 Republican landslide in Congress, Sabato said, but four years later Republicans kept both gubernatorial seats while Democrats made up ground in Congress.
Likewise, in 2001, Democrats Warner and McGreevey took those governors' seats, but Republicans strengthened their numbers in the 2002 congressional elections.
"The only thing we can be sure of is that the party that wins will exaggerate the results, and the party that loses will downplay the results," Sabato said.