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Bob McDonnell (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Comeback candidates

Elections | Off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey test the potential for GOP revival in 2010

Issue: "Save the unions," Oct. 24, 2009

RICHMOND, Va., and ORANGE, N.J.-Bob McDonnell had barely warmed up his worn-out vocal cords at the swank Richmond Convention Center when the lights went out. The laid-back Republican gubernatorial candidate paused for the audience's nervous laughter before plowing ahead. But the lights kept blinking. On and off. Finally, the 55-year-old former state attorney general asked: "Is somebody trying to tell me something? If I say something you like, the lights go on? I'm trying to break the code here."

Republicans around the country are hoping McDonnell, who leads in the polls, doesn't let the lights go out on a much-needed victory for the GOP. When Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate to win Virginia since 1964, state Republicans were on their heels. But just a year later, Republicans here sense a comeback in the making.

Or make that two: New Jersey joins Virginia as the only states holding off-year gubernatorial elections in 2009, and like Virginia, Republican candidate Chris Christie also has maintained a polling lead for most of the year in the Garden State.

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National party organizations have spent more than $5 million in New Jersey and $13 million in Virginia. Labor unions have pumped $1.4 million into Virginia's campaign, hoping to open a battleground for the future of right-to-work laws in the non-union South.

Attention has followed the money: McDonnell and Christie represent a vanguard, Republicans trying to crack the code on Democratic gains at both the state and national level. "Last year the political climate was dreadful, ghastly," said former Gov. Jim Gilmore at the Richmond event. A Republican, Gilmore ran for the Senate in 2008, winning only 34 percent of the vote against Democratic Sen. Mark Warner. "I think a lot of that was President Bush. Now he's gone."

In the Obama era Republicans are turning back to the "all politics is local" axiom, as the campaigns have emphasized the role of the White House in affairs of the state.

Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds, 51, is a folksy state senator from rural Virginia who recently compared education cuts to "eating your seed corn, it threatens next year's crop." He has taken a two-prong attack against McDonnell: tying him to George W. Bush and criticizing McDonnell's conservative social views. Deeds runs ads saying McDonnell is bad for working women, citing his pro-life stance and a controversial graduate school thesis McDonnell wrote 20 years ago asserting that feminists were "detrimental to the family."

For his part, McDonnell, who beat Deeds by 332 votes four years ago in the state attorney general race, has used his 18-year government career to paint himself as more in touch with Virginians' conservative roots: "The other side is going to be talking about more spending and more taxes and more regulation," he told me during a tour of Virginia's newest charter school. "I want to talk to them about more innovation and more privatization."

McDonnell is turning the election into a referendum on Obama. When I asked him why the political winds are favoring his candidacy this year, he didn't hesitate to blame Washington: "There is a real concern about some of the things that this Congress is doing on spending, on the deficit, on unfunded mandates that people are concerned about . . . this election for governor is their first chance to say something about it."

Forcing Deeds to stand with or against federal policies has so far been successful. Deeds is keeping his distance from Obama's agenda, not appearing at two recent Obama events in Virginia to promote healthcare. "I'm a Creigh Deeds Democrat," was his comeback at a recent debate when asked if he considered himself an Obama Democrat.

If Virginia is a guide, congressional candidates and others in 2010 can expect similar questions for Democratic candidates in former red states that went for Obama in 2008. "Obama is turning out to be much more liberal and divisive than people thought," said Peter Wehner with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "It may soon dawn on a few moderate Democrats that following Obama could be a death sentence for your political career. He's making the country more conservative."

While that might be true in Virginia, the Obama factor seems to be having different results in a deep-blue state like New Jersey, where Christie is vying to become the first Republican to get more than 50 percent of the vote since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Motorists along the streets leading to the St. Matthew AME Church in Orange, N.J., see clear signs that Obama remains popular: Billboards and posters tacked to telephone polls show incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine posing with Obama above the words, "Keep it going." Inside the church, where both candidates spoke Sept. 30, enlarged photos of Obama and his family decorate the entryway. "Our time has come," read one caption.

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