Two gubernatorial races are on deck for this year; New Jersey and Virginia. In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie in every poll is well ahead of his largely unknown Democratic challenger. If Christie wins it will be the first time a Republican has captured the Governor’s mansion in the state twice in a row since 1993. Since Hurricane Sandy in late October 2012 Christie’s approval numbers have not dipped below 60% and many well-known Democrats such as Newwark mayor Corey Booker have declined to challenge him. In essence, New Jersey is Christie’s race to lose.
Virginia, on the other hand is something quite different. Virginia only allows its Governor’s to serve one consecutive term. As a result GOP Governor Bob McDonnell has to vacate his office in early 2014. McDonnell will likely leave office with approval ratings in the 60’s despite antagonizing conservatives and liberals alike with his infrastructure project plan. Whoever replaces him will have to deal with the consequences of that plan.
Virginia Secretary of State Ken Cuccinelli has all but locked up the GOP nod. Conservative activists in late 2012 handed him the defacto nomination when they changed the nomination process from an open primary to a convention. More moderate GOP Lt. Governor Bill Bolling had been thought to be a better fit for the statewide electorate (he even toyed with the idea of running as an Independent but declined). On the other side of the aisle is Democrat Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe ran in the 2009 Democratic primary but lost to eventual nominee Creigh Deeds pretty badly.
By any stretch of the imagination neither candidate would be viable against a decent opponent. But against each other one has to win in the end. Both come with deep baggage. Cuccinelli is a conservative firebrand that appeals to the base (think rural voters and suburban Southern Virginia). He brought a lawsuit against Obamacare, has fought against climate change and has hinted Obama was not born in the US. McAuliffe might have even more baggage. The Democrat was a former bundler for Bill Clinton in the 90’s and Hillary in 2008. He is uninspiring on the stump, is seen as a partisan insider with little executive experience and has been hammered by Cuccinelli’s campaign on his handling of a now defunct green company he formerly ran.
According to surveys both remain largely unknown to the public and Cucinelli holds varying leads. The Virginia electorate also seems to have not yet tuned into the race. Both candidates are seeking to downplay their weaknesses. McAuliffe has been consistently touring Southern Virginia and businesses trying to project an executive aura. Cuccinelli has softened his tone on climate change and the Governor’s infrastructure plan he opposes (and once stated was unconstitutional).
Charles Cooke, in the Cook Report raises a good point about why Virginia will be an indicator of where 2014 is headed. Virginia, like its neighbor to the South, North Carolina has turned into a Mid-Atlantic battleground state due to demographics. Thus its population is a fairly good mirror of the country as a whole. In both 2008 and 2012 Virginia was the state that most closely mirrored the national Presidential popular vote.
Cuccinelli has higher name ID than McAuliffe but he may have other advantages. Many of the political advisers who ran Bob McDonnell’s campaign in 2009 and softened his image among moderates and women are on Cuccinelli’s team. Additionally, Cuccinelli is a Virginian born and raised who cut his teeth in state politics. McAuliffe started his political career in Virginia but lacks the statewide pedigree that Cuccinelli is sure to hit home in the campaign.
The 2009 Virginia gubernatorial results (McDonnell 58%-41% Deeds) hinted at the landslide that was coming in 2010. That year the GOP gained 63 House seats, 6 Senate seats, multiple Governorships, and 750+ legislative seats. Additionally, they gained two, almost three, Virginia Congressional Districts. The results of this race could be as telling as the results of the 2009 race was.