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DGA Chief Says Ignore NJ Polls, Avoids Calling for Paterson to Run Again

A week or so after hearing from Republican Governors Association executive director Nick Ayers, our latest interview is with Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. A Harvard-trained lawyer, Daschle formerly worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council and the law firm Covington & Burling. A few years ago, Washingtonian magazine named him one of the city’s top 40 lawyers under 40.

The DGA is blessed with a majority of the nation’s governors, but therefore must defend plenty of territory in 2010, and in two key races this fall–New Jersey and Virginia. Daschle was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to speak with Fivethirthyeight about the DGA’s prospects over the next two years. According to’s tracking of the race, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine looks to be in serious trouble. What will it take for him to hold this seat, and do you think his bio as a former Goldman Sachs executive is hurting him?

Nathan Daschle: Let me start with the last part of the question first. I don’t think his background is hurting him. To the contrary, Governor Corzine created the first economic recovery plan in the country. Things in New Jersey would be a lot worse if Governor Corzine wasn’t leading the state.

The reason Jon Corzine is going to win is because he’s demonstrated that he can make difficult decisions that will put his state on the right path when this global recession is over. He is a real leader, not just a politician, and that will come through as this campaign gets closer to November. Governor Corzine knows how to handle this economy, he knows the types of decisions he needs to make.

Chris Christie? He has no vision for the state. If you ask him questions about what he would do for New Jersey, he comes back with general statements of criticism about Governor Corzine. That’s not leadership. And I think the contrast on that count is stark and is one that voters will respond to.

Christie started his campaign wanting to talk about one issue—ethics. He’s spent more of his time trying to defend his record on ethics, giving multi-million dollar no-bid contracts to political allies, campaign contributors and the prosecutor who didn’t go after his brother for stock fraud. The more voters learn about Chris Christie, the less they like him. And I think you’re seeing that in the increases in his unfavorables.

I’m not gonna lie: I’d much rather be on the top than the bottom of these polls. But these polls in New Jersey have a history of being wrong.

Early public polls in the state traditionally overstate support for Republicans. In 2004, two polls showed [John] Kerry down 4 points to [George] Bush, and many others showed a close race. Kerry won by 8. In 2005, when Governor Corzine first ran, late polling showed him up by only 4 points. He won by 10 points. In 2006, through late September, public polls showed [Tom] Kean leading [Robert] Menendez for the Senate. Menendez won by 8.

We have to be cautious of early polling results in New Jersey.

538: Creigh Deeds is basically neck-and-neck in Virginia, probably trailing slightly. I’m sure you don’t like hypotheticals, but if Republicans win there and in New Jersey there will be a lot of buzz this autumn–some of it spin from the GOP, sure, but also from the media–about a Republican comeback happening on your watch. Care to respond about that possibility?

ND: If the Republicans win New Jersey and Virginia we’ll be disappointed, no doubt about that. National Republicans have elevated these races to must-wins for a party that has been in the wilderness for a while now. They are calling them the start of their comeback. But look, both of these races are going to be decided based on issues in these states.

In Virginia, I believe Creigh Deeds will win because he is the right candidate for Virginia. He’s right there in the mainstream and exactly the kind of leader people want.

He is the last guy the Republicans wanted to run against. I think they didn’t know what to do with his broad appeal, his governing style in the tradition of Governors Warner and Kaine, and his ability to attract Independents and moderate Republicans who are alienated by Bob McDonnell’s conservative views.

538: David Patterson’s approval ratings are worse than former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s. Do you want Patterson to run again to hold the seat in New York or do you think Democrats would be better suited with another candidate?

ND: You know, I think right now we’re just trying to make sure he can lead the state through the present turmoil. He has strong support of the DGA, no matter what he decides to do. He’s gonna be focused on economic recovery and governing the state in the near-term.

538: Do you have any indication he may not run?

ND: I have no indications of that, no.

538: As you know, I recently interviewed your counterpart, Nick Ayers. He boasts that the RGA is keeping pace or even exceeding the DGA in fundraising. This is despite the fact you have more governors as surrogates and have more total seats to defend. Is the DGA struggling to raise money and if so, why?

ND: The RGA has outraised DGA in every election since Teddy Roosevelt was its chair. What Nick didn’t tell you is that for the first time ever, we are virtually tied with RGA at the halfway mark. On the June 30 filing, we were separated by only $600,000.

On top of that, we raised more in the first six months of this year than we have in any similar period in DGA history. The RGA raised less this year than they raised last year. So, our trajectory is upwards, theirs downward. I couldn’t be happier with our fundraising situation.

I’m certain that they will continue to outraise us, but we are winning more races despite being at a financial disadvantage. The bottom line is that DGA and RGA have gone head to head in four races since 2007, and DGA has won all four. They will always have more money, but we have better candidates, better ideas, and better strategies.

538: Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty has announced he’s not running again, leaving open the possibility that Norm Coleman might get in that race. Do you have any comment about a potential Coleman bid and, with or without him in the race, what are the Democrats’ chances of picking up that seat?

ND: I don’t think it really matters. If the GOP recruits him into the race it’s a sign of desperation. Norm Coleman’s popularity after the unnecessarily long Senate fight is very damaged. In fact, when Public Policy Polling released their latest numbers, the headline on the press release was: “Recount Saga Hurt Coleman’s Future Prospects.” Not only that, Governor Pawlenty is leaving with less than stellar marks. We have a strong crop of candidates running. This is a state that trends blue. Frankly, no matter who runs we will be competitive.

538: President Obama has created some problems for you in plucking Democratic women governors out of office to put in his cabinet. I’m thinking specifically of Janet Napolitano and Kathleen Sebelius, who were popular Democratic governors in red states. With them gone, how do you plan to compete in increasingly competitive but still red-leaning states like Arizona or Kansas?

ND: Well, you’re right, I think President Obama has drawn on some of our ranks. Frankly, we find that to be a good development. That’s a compliment to governors that he wants so many of them in his government.

But you’re right it does create a different landscape for us. We need to find a way to replicate that the success of Sebelius and Napolitano. Gov. [Jan] Brewer is having a hard time; she’s beatable. She’s never been elected in her own right. And I think she’s finding herself unprepared for the rigors of being governor. And when she has a record next year to defend, especially with major education cuts, I think that Arizona remains an opportunity.

In Kansas, well, Kansas is going to be tough. We haven’t sorted out our candidate, but Governor Sebelius certainly showed us the path to electing a commonsense leader who can work across the aisle.

538: One technological, data-oriented question that’s of particular interest to me and surely many of our readers: How, if at all, will the DGA access or use the vaunted email and contact lists that the Obama campaign assembled during the 2008 presidential run?

ND: It differs state-by-state based on a number of considerations. I have frequent meetings with the DNC. And I can tell you the White House is very committed to winning these races. They know how important they are not only to the country, but to President Obama’s agenda.

President Obama and Vice President Biden have both traveled to New Jersey on behalf of Governor Corzine. Vice President Biden went to Virginia for Sen. Deeds, and President Obama is scheduled to be there on Aug. 6.

538: I want to ask a question I also posed to the RGA: Can you identify one or two up-and-coming state Democratic leaders we should keep an eye on and that may be 2010 gubernatorial nominees, but whom most of our readers living outside of those states have probably never heard of?

ND: Sure. I think there are couple of 2010 incumbents running for reelection. Gov Martin O’Malley of Maryland is our vice chair and he’s an incredible talent. He has the respect of his peers and has shown his ability to make tough decisions in tough times but without abandoning his principles.

Gov. [Deval] Patrick in Massachusetts is another who has a bright future, who is regarded as a leader in the party.

Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware is absolutely a governor to watch. He’s only in his first year but his peers have a tremendous amount of respect for his skills.

Alex Sink in Florida will be a strong candidate. She’s the chief financial officer, and has statewide appeal and will instantly have a national profile. She’s generated a lot of excitement in Florida, both for her reform-minded approach toward governing and for the way she demands results out of government.

538: Finally, does having a Democratic governor, Tim Kaine, at the helm of the DNC improve the party’s focus on governors? What I mean by that is, how if at all, is Gov. Kaine specifically an asset to the DGA?

ND: It does in a couple of ways. First of all, it’s a signal that the national party recognizes the value of governors. Until last year, governors were the only CEOs in our party, and that’s a really distinct brand. Having Gov. Kaine as party chair is a reflection of that, the value of leadership and executive experience.

Second, he has so many friendships among Democratic governors, and they with him. So there’s a real connection there and an ability to get things done.