Below is the first of two interviews, one each conducted with representatives from the campaign committees for each party that focus on state contests.
Carrie Cantrell is director of communications for the Republican State Leadership Committee. Prior to joining the RSLC, Cantrell served as press secretary for Virginia Senator and Governor George Allen, policy director for Jerry Kilgore’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign, and deputy director for communications for Attorney General Kilgore.
fivethirtyeight.com: Can you give our readers a sense of how much the RSLC has invested in the state legislative races in both New Jersey and Virginia for this upcoming election cycle?
Carrie Cantrell: Overall, I can’t segregate out the legislative races, but for the attorney general, governor and legislative races we’ve spent over a million and a half combined. But a significant amount of that was in Virginia.
538: Back in 2001, Republicans tinkered with new voter contact methods that eventually led to the 2004 “72-hour” program. I was wondering if you guys are tinkering with any new technological tools or tactics in the field campaign and for voter contacting generally, and if so what?
Cantrell: I know that some folks in the Virginia races have a new technology using Blackberries to collect similar information as the 72-hour program, but using a different tool—the Blackberry. So the microtargeting is still being done. We’ve really put an emphasis on the candidates themselves doing the door-to-door, and they’ve really been doing an outstanding job knocking on over 10,000 households.
538: The conventional wisdom is that lower turnout in non-presidential years tends to help the GOP, as older and whiter voters cast a greater share of the votes—that is, the younger and more multi-racial “Obama surge” voters of 2008 would therefore have less impact, in theory. Are you expecting a low turnout in New Jersey and Virginia compared to the last statewide cycle in 2005, and are you counting on that for success Tuesday?
Cantrell: Since 2005 I think that since we’ve seen more people energized and excited, and we’re definitely going to turn out to vote independents and Republicans. They are really energized to go out and vote.
We may see some upticks from 2005. Certainly we’re not going to see what we saw last year, which is hard to do on any non-presidential year. But I think we’ll see more people voting this year than in 2005.
538: Do you think Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie will have any coattails—or alternatively, will Democrats Creigh Deeds and Jon Corzine have a downballot effect—in these state legislative races, or do you think the contests for state legislature be mostly localized in terms of the winners and losers?
Cantrell: We certainly predict that there will be a coattail effect. But it’s an effect because of the issues, and also the ability to localize those issues and the candidates to put forward ideas.
I think what we’ve seen a lot on the Democrats’ side—it’s all negative. They’ve given no reason for people to go out and vote for them, other than saying that the person they’re running against is just bad. And it’s just not going to work this year. People are tuned in and they want a plan, and they’re going to vote for the person with the best plan. And that’s why the Republicans are going to be successful on Tuesday.
538: Shifting away from New Jersey and Virginia for a second, can you comment on the situation in the New York State Senate?
Cantrell: I think there will be opportunities to rebound in the New York State Senate. The environment now will carry over in 2010 and that will help Republicans there.
538: Thinking ahead a year to 2010, the GOP has suffered significant losses in 2004, 2006 and 2008. Though there have been states like Oklahoma and Tennessee where chambers have flipped from Democratic to Republican control, overall the Democrats have flipped more than a dozen net chambers in the past three cycles. How are Republicans going to reverse this trend?
Cantrell: Last year we also were able to pick up a majority in Montana. And I think overall in the big picture, while we lost some state legislative races we were also quite successful in some of the other statewide races, like attorney general races and lieutenant governor races.
Certainly Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania and Rob McKenna in Washington state, where those two states went overwhelmingly for Obama, they also went overwhelming for Rob McKenna and Tom Corbett. Those are two future rising stars in the party. In the environment we were in 2006 and 2008, Republicans did quite well giving what they were running against.
538: Can you identify, in either New Jersey or Virginia, a rising legislative star or legislative candidate this cycle you think could some day emerge as a key figure in the party’s state or national future?
Cantrell: In Virginia, all three statewide candidates served in the state legislature at one time or are serving in the state legislature. So their records in the state legislature have helped prepare them to run for statewide office.
Also, I would say state senator Robert Hurt from southside Virginia, who is running for Congress. He served in both the House and was just elected to the Senate. New Jersey is a little more peculiar in that we don’t have as many statewide races there.
538: Your predictions for next week: What do you think the headlines will be out of Richmond and Trenton on Wednesday morning as far as overall gains or losses in those two state legislatures?
Cantrell: I think that in the state legislature in both states Republicans are going to pickup seats. It depends on who shows up. If the numbers and intensity that we’re seeing in the polls hold, on Tuesday we could see a tremendous change, a tremendous pickup. But I think there will be pickups in both New Jersey and Virginia.
538: Do you think there needs to be a positive net gain for Republicans to demonstrate that the tide is turning? If the governors races split, do you think people will look to the downballot races as evidence the Republicans are making a comeback?
Cantrell: I do. I think that the White House is already trying to downplay the fact that Virginia is going to elect a Republican governor, which we haven’t done in the last few election cycle, and we’re going to see increases in the state legislature. They have already tried to set the framework for a loss in Virginia and a win for them in New Jersey, and they’re spending all the resources in New Jersey. It’s obviously quite important to them to offset any gains we have in the New Jersey legislature. But we’re still talking about New Jersey here.
So it should be an exciting day for the Republican Party and something for folks to look at for next year.