Off Years and Random Thoughts

Yesterday was election day in a number of states. Most notably, gubernatorial races were held in Virginia and New Jersey, where the Democratic candidate won both contests. The conventional wisdom is already forming that last night’s elections were a backlash against President Bush and a victory for the Democrats. While that may be true locally here in the D.C. region, on the larger scale the picture is less clear. Here are some thought on both races:

Virginia
Here in Virginia, Democrat Lt. Governor Tim Kaine bested former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore by a margin of 52-46, with turncoat Republican Russ Potts’s independent bid garnering just two percent. Kilgore led the race for much of the summer, but generally by small margins averaging 4-6 percent. Kaine closed the race in the late weeks, and the race entered election day too close to call. A last minute visit by President Bush was unable to stem the tide against Kilgore.

The media is already spinning the result as a repudiation of President Bush. That may be true here locally in NoVA, as Kaine took the DC suburbs with about 58 percent of the vote. However, the statewide picture is less clear. The Republican undercard polled ahead of Kilgore on the state level: Republican Lt. Governor candidate Bill Bolling won his race with 51 percent of the vote (approximately 965,000 votes) compared to Kilgore’s 46 percent (approximately 902,000 votes), and while Attorney General candidate Bob McDonnell’s race is too close to call, he too received approximately 60,000 more votes than the head of the ticket. This says to me the loss had more to do with the weaknesses of Kilgore as a candidate than any repudiation of the president. Kilgore was dull on the stump, walked into verbal traps, and, in the closing days, relied too heavily on misleading negative ads that turned off a lot of voters (including myself). His “Kaine is a liberal tax hiker” ads included some quotes that were over a decade old, and his “Kaine wants to end the death penalty” ad was so misleading that Kaine’s campaign was forced to come out with an ad in response stating that although as a Catholic Kaine is against the death penalty, he’d enforce the state’s laws on the matter–not unlike the type of defensive ads Republicans have to put out when Democrats attack them for being pro-life. Furthermore, on the ground, Kilgore’s campaign was invisible here in NoVa. Kaine’s folks were at the metro at least twice a week for the last two months and his GoTV youth team visited my neighborhood at least three times. Even Russ “2 percent” Potts made two personal appearances at the metro in the last week. But Kilgore’s people never made an appearance. Not once. I suspect that the Republican ticket, dominated by downstaters, simply did not put enough time and money into organizing in the NoVa region.

In the final analysis, I think Kilgore was a weak candidate, while Kaine was helped by Mark Warner’s high approval numbers and centrist reputation. Looking ahead, this result may boost Warner’s chances to become the anti-Hillary candidate in the 2008 Democratic primaries.

New Jersey
In the ancestral homeland, Democratic Senator Jon Corzine defeated businessman Doug Forrester to claim the state’s governorship. This race’s 54-43 result is less notable than Virginia’s, given the natural advantage Democrats enjoy in the state (they once possessed a 2-1 registration edge). The result was not unexpected, as, except for one Quinnipiac poll in October and a few polls in the final week, Corzine’s lead never dropped from the typical Democratic edge of 5-10 percent.

The most important result of the New Jersey race is that Corzine will get to appoint his own successor in the Senate. His seat is up next year, so naming the right person is critical for the Democrats. There are a host of 2nd-tier Democrats under consideration, whose names are familiar to any New Jersey resident–Congressmen Bob Andrews, Robert Menendez, and Rush Holt, and acting governor Richard Codey. Codey would be the best choice for the Democrats, because he polls best against likely GOP candidate Tom Kean, Jr., who represents the GOP’s best chance to win its first Senate seat from New Jersey since 1982. But as I understand it, there’s some animosity between Codey and Corzine because of Corzine’s pushing aside the acting governor to run for the seat himself, so Codey might turn down an appointment. Corzine might also go for a one-year caretaker in the seat, but I doubt it.

New Jersey voters also passed a ballot measure in support of creating a Lt. Governor. Since both Christie Whitman and Jim McGreevey left office early, the state has been lead by acting governors for much of the past 5 years. The state had been one of 7 without a Lt. Governor office.

UPDATE: As Eric Seymour says in the comments section of the ITA version of this post, it is also worth remembering that the Democrats were the incumbents in both races — Warner in Virginia and Codey in New Jersey. The Democratic gloating about these races is quite premature.

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