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Does History Dictate That New Jersey and Virginia Will Elect Republican Governors in November?

Yesterday New Jersey Republicans, in a light turnout, chose former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie to take on incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in November. As expected, Christie, a favorite of national Republicans, defeated Bogota mayor Steven Lonegan, a self-styled conservative activist, by a comfortable 55%-42% margin. Corzine won the Democratic nomination with 77% of the vote against three minor opponents.

Next Tuesday, Virginia Democrats will hold a gubernatorial primary featuring state senator Creigh Deeds, former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe, and former state rep. Brian Moran. The winner will take on Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who is unopposed for the GOP nomination.

Since these are the only two major statewide political contests in this off-year, national political observers will naturally seek to divine national political trends in NJ and VA, and some will go right over the brink and treat them as referenda on President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress. And in that connection, we will be told repeatedly that the party controlling the White House hasn’t won a gubernatorial election in either state since 1989.

Is that bit of selective data really a legitimate predictor of this November’s results? I don’t think so.

This simplest way to test the “party holding the White House loses NJ and VA” axiom is to look beyond the five cycles from 1989 through 2005 at the previous five cycles. And there the hypothesis quickly breaks down.

For one thing, VA and NJ went in different partisan directions in four of the five off-year elections (NJ elected a Republican Governor and VA a Democrat in 1985 and 1981, while NJ went Democratic in 1977 and 1973, and VA went Republican in those years) between 1969 and 1985. The only time they moved in concert, in 1969, the party controlling the White House won both states.

So the question must be asked: did the citizens of these two very different states suddenly decide in 1989 to start holding national political referenda in choosing their governors, and moreover, to award their top state political prize to the party out of power in Washington? There’s no particular reason to think so.

Now there’s a sub-argument sometimes made that Virginia is the real contrarian bellwether, perhaps because of its proximity to Washington. That’s more credible since the party controlling the White House has now lost eight consecutive gubernatorial elections there. Moreover, Virginia’s susceptibility to big partisan trends is theoretically strengthened by its now-unique law against successive gubernatorial terms, which wipes out much of the power of incumbency to influence election results.

But if you look more closely at those three pre-1989 VA gubernatorial elections where the party controlling the White House lost, the idea that the results reflected an anti-White-House-incumbent backlash begins to weaken. (NOTE: all references to the results of these VA gubernatorial elections are from unofficial compilations by Polidata, since the State Board of Elections does not publish returns prior to 1995.)

In fact, distinctive Virginia intra-party dynamics were a big factor in the 1977, 1981 and 1985 gubernatorial races. In 1977, Virginia Democrats were enduring the final phase of the ancient rivalry between the old Byrd machine and party “insurgents.” The best-known insurgent, Henry Howell, won the gubernatorial nomination in a close race against establishment candidate Andrew Miller, and then went on to get vastly outspent and then trounced by Republican John Dalton. None of this had much to do with what was happening in Washington, and the idea that Virginia was trying to “send a message” to Jimmy Carter is also undercut by the fact that the Commonwealth was the only state in the former Confederacy that didn’t go for Jimmy the year before. The “message,” if any, had already been sent.

Then in 1981, after much soul-searching among Virginia Democrats, the party united behind popular moderate-to-conservative Lt. Gov. Chuck Robb, who won comfortably, as did his hand-picked successor, Gerald Baliles, in 1985.

I could go on, but you get the idea: applying Occam’s Razor (i.e., the most simple theory that explains a phenomenon should be given precedence), which in this case would suggest that state elections are most obviously controlled by state political dynamics, there’s plenty of evidence explaining why one party or the other has won Virginia gubernatorial elections without resorting to the “White House backlash” explanation.

That’s true of more recent elections in both New Jersey and Virginia. New Jersey is a relatively competitive state leaning Democratic in most state and presidential contests in recent years. It underwent a tax revolt in the early 1990s that helped an exceptionally talented moderate Republican politician, Christine Todd Whitman, win the governorship in 1993; she had little trouble getting re-elected in 1997. It’s largely a coincidence that a Democrat was in the White House both those years. Since Whitman left office, New Jersey has reverted to its fundamentally Democratic leanings; it’s largely a coincidence that a Republican was in the White House in 2001 and 2005.

Virginia, meanwhile, has been a Republican-leaning state trending Democratic; Republican gubernatorial wins in 1993 and 1997 were unremarkable given the state’s basic political complexion, though in 1997, a close race was blown open by the brilliant if irresponsible ploy by Jim Gilmore to campaign almost exclusively on a pledge to repeal an unpopular “car tax” (a tactic so powerful in VA that it was replicated in Republican gubernatorial campaigns in other states for several years). Mark Warner’s 2001 campaign will be studied for years by political scientists as a textbook case of successful strategic audacity and effective use of a financial advantage. If Virginians were trying to send a “message” to George W. Bush by electing Warner, it’s odd that they voted three years later to re-elect Bush by a goodly margin. More importantly, the 2001 election occurred at the very peak of Bush’s post-9/11 popularity. By 2005, the demographic changes in VA that eventually led to the first Democratic victory in the Commonwealth since 1964 made Tim Kaine’s win pretty unsurprising, and in any event, Republicans generally conceded that Kaine ran a far better campaign than GOP nominee Jerry Kilgore.

I am not ruling out the strong possibility that attitudes towards the party controlling the White House have had some effect, at the margins at least, in state elections in both New Jersey and Virginia. Voters do not completely compartmentalize national and state politics, and the White-House-backlash phenomenon is evidenced by the general rule that the presidential party loses congressional seats in midterm elections (though it’s worth remembering that two exceptions to this “rule” have occurred in the last three midterms, in 1998 and 2002).

There’s little question, for example, that Tim Kaine in 2005 benefitted from anti-Bush sentiments in those rapidly growing Northern Virginia counties that are within the Washington media market. But it’s also likely that Kaine benefitted in those same counties even more from a backlash against Jerry Kilgore’s over-the-top negative campaign (and his oafish handling of the death penalty issue), and from his own messaging, which was tailor-made to appeal to suburban voters.

All in all, there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical about predictions that New Jersey and Virginia are somehow destined to vote Republican this November. And even if that happens, in-state dynamics, such as Jon Corzine’s low approval ratings or a “backlash” against two consecutive Democratic administrations in Richmond, will probably matter most.