The honeymoon is officially over. President Obama is now the incumbent and the gloves have come off as we are seeing on health care reform. Though he still personally enjoys robust public support, there has been some erosion in the public’s opinion of some of his policy initiatives, most noticeably universal health care. In the coming months the President will face the first major judgment of his administration as voters in New Jersey and Virginia go to the polls to elect their governors. The two states are a precursor to the 2010 midterm Congressional races when Democrats in Congress will be up for re-election.
In New Jersey, things have progressed from bad to worse. Burdened by a fiscal crisis borne from the current recession, incumbent first-termer Governor Jon Corzine is down in the polls. His Republican opponent is former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, a self-declared corruption czar who successfully put well over 100 elected officials behind bars on corruption charges during his tenure. It has not helped Corzine that some of the biggest fish captured have been Democrats, and that his predecessor, Jim McGreevey, left office in disgrace over an affair with a male aide. Though Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature in New Jersey, the state’s deteriorating finances have left them little opportunity to advance a proactive agenda. Voters in the state are in a deep funk and are not in the mood to give incumbents the benefit of the doubt.
Governor Corzine has also been plagued by some personal missteps. He was seriously injured when his vehicle crashed on the New Jersey Turnpike and spent weeks in rehabilitation for his injuries. While there was widespread concern over his health, the fact that he was not wearing a seat belt left many people unsympathetic. The governor also raised eyebrows over a personal relationship with a leading union leader that soured and played out like a soap opera on the pages of the state’s newspapers. The state’s finances have simply made a bad situation worse for the former Wall Street executive. How bad are things for Corzine? President Obama, who is popular in the state, made a personal appearance with the governor and it failed to move his numbers. Likewise, the announcement of a progressive Democratic legislator from vote rich Bergen County as his lieutenant governor candidate, the first time the state has voted on the position, also registered little favorable public opinion. Now, the White House is working behind the scenes to get the governor’s campaign on track. There are more voters identified as unattached or independent in New Jersey than Republicans or Democrats, and they will likely determine who will next occupy the governor’s mansion.
Virginia, unlike New Jersey, was on the fence during the presidential campaign. Though Governor Tim Kaine was among the first to endorse Barack Obama’s candidacy, the politics of Virginia is an interesting mix of the old Confederacy and the cosmopolitan renaissance of the northern region of the state. The President’s victory in Obama did not change the underlying politics of Virginia, he simply reshuffled the deck enough to come up with a winning hand last November. The real measure of his staying power will be the behavior of voters when voters go to the polls later this year.
Virginia has had two consecutive Democratic governors, the very popular Mark Warner, who now serves in the U.S. Senate, and the incumbent Tim Kaine. Governor Kaine is prohibited from running again by the state constitution. This year’s contest is between Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, a former Bath County prosecutor and current State Senator, and Republican Robert F. McDonnell, the state’s Attorney General. Neither candidate has pulled away in the polls but there are some signs that voters in Virginia may be expiring fatigue from the intensity of last year’s presidential campaign. McDonnell did go on the offensive in the first debate, casting the gubernatorial race as a referendum on President Obama. Clearly, that message will resonate with some voters in the GOP base who are already predisposed to oppose the President but McDonnell’s real target is moderate voters. Like New Jersey, it is voters in the middle of the political spectrum in Virginia that may determine the gubernatorial race’s outcome. Deeds, the Democratic candidate, recently stepped into the controversial waters of abortion politics, charging that his Republican opponent would work to restrict access to abortions. Virginia is still a relatively conservative state that is still heavily influenced by faith driven politics. The move could backfire on Deeds if it riles up conservatives voters to mobilize on behalf of the pro-life McDonnell.
If one or both of these states fall into the Republican column, the White House will be under tremendous pressure from Democrats on the Hill to alter its agenda to help protect incumbents in the midterm Congressional races. Historically, the party controlling the White House loses seats in the first election after the President assumes office so Democrats are feeling the tug of history in addition to the real politics on the ground in two crucial states. Already, the more conservative leaning Democrats on the Hill, so-called “Blue Dogs,” have flexed their muscle in the health care debate and have made an already tense environment that much more testy for the President. A loss in either one of these two states will embolden factions within the Democratic camp to challenge President Obama for no other reason than to insulate them from perceived voter backlash. As if Virginia and New Jersey were not enough, Democrats in New York are on self-destruct with the state Senate enduring a Democrat led coup of its own leadership and the state’s first Black governor, David Paterson, facing doubts among his party’s leadership over his electability for a full term in office.