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.
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.
Corzine, a multimillionaire former Wall Street executive who spent $40 million of his own money to win the statehouse four years ago, has hitched himself to the Obama train. While Obama garnered 57 percent of the vote here last year, Corzine's job approval rating has dipped into the low 30s, largely due to state tax increases that totaled $1 billion last year alone.
Voter discontent is one reason that Christie, like McDonnell a former state attorney general, held a surprising lead in 40 straight polls this year. This despite the fact that Christie hasn't hidden his pro-life, conservative roots-a rarity in Northeastern states where successful Republicans are usually moderates in disguise.
Christie has not targeted Obama specifically but rather the big government push that created a punishing tax and regulatory climate for the Garden State. With the highest tax burden in America, the state suffers from a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate-its highest in 33 years-and faces an $8 billion budget deficit next year.
"The kind of economic policies people fear are coming out of the Obama administration have already played out here in New Jersey over the last eight years," said Christie's campaign chairman, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos.
But to win states like New Jersey, Republicans must better reach newly energized voting blocs like the African-American community; non-white voters increased in 2008 by 19 percent nationwide compared to 2004. This is proving to be a steep climb for Christie in New Jersey. Recently I joined Christie as he took his tax-cut message to the statewide conference of black ministers at the St. Matthew Church in Orange. Under a banner that read, "Go therefore and make disciples," Christie contrasted his modest, working-class roots with Corzine's wealth and preached about why the ministers should support a Republican.
"I feel like we have common interests in many areas," he told black pastors. But here he wasn't making many disciples.
"You're lying now," shouted 73-year-old attendant Delores Lewis, having her own Joe Wilson moment after Christie began talking about the importance of charter schools. The stout, hard-charging 47-year-old, who has won accolades for prosecuting political corruption cases, was undeterred. "There are some things I've said that you don't agree with," Christie concluded. "I've seen the look on your faces. But I'm a different kind of candidate because I'm here."
"Amen," an audience member replied.
But Lewis, the community organizer who interrupted Christie's speech, was no convert: "I will be fighting the Republicans. Obama has a tough job, and we Democrats need to stand behind him."
A few hours later, at the same church, participants-more than double the number of Christie's appearance-stood up and applauded as Corzine entered the sanctuary. His speech began with the story of Obama's election. No one interrupted.
Many think that independent voters, who went for Obama in droves last year, may determine the outcome of upcoming elections. This will test the transferability of Obama's political superstructure. "Are they going to show up a year later when Obama is not on the ticket?" wonders Tom Schaller, political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Already there has been a swing: Last year Democrats enjoyed a 14-point advantage when pollsters asked registered independents which party they preferred. But a new Gallup poll shows that independents now favor Republicans over Democratic candidates by 45 percent to 36 percent. In New Jersey, where 46 percent of registered voters are unaffiliated, independents are leaning Republican by a 2-to-1 margin.
The swing is reflected in fundraising: In August, during the heat of the healthcare debate, Republican congressional campaign committees brought in $1.7 million more than corresponding committees for Democrats, which have seen donations this year drop by 20 percent compared to last year. Democrats began the year with loads of goodwill among independents but have expended an enormous amount of political capital in a short period of time. They've asked Americans to accept a $787 billion economic stimulus and governmental takeovers of the banks and the automobile industry. And soon Congress may pass a healthcare overhaul that would put federal hands all over one-sixth of the nation's economy.
The early success of both McDonnell and Christie suggests that their strategy of embracing their conservative bona fides has tapped into the grassroots energy that has been unleashed in the growing Tea Party movement, which favors the limited-government views of Republicans. GOP volunteers have knocked on more doors already around Virginia than in the entire 2008 presidential election.
Republican wins in a Democratic stronghold like New Jersey and in a purple state like Virginia would boost both GOP fundraising and recruiting efforts, giving more qualified conservative candidates the confidence to toss their hats into 2010 races. Then the stakes will be higher: 37 governors' races, 38 U.S. Senate seats, and the entire U.S. House are up for grabs.
Hopeful conservatives are even starting to whisper the date 1993. Then, one year after the nation sent Bill Clinton to the White House, Republicans won governors' races in both New Jersey and Virginia. The next year came the historic Republican revolution when Republicans won 54 seats in the House and eight Senate seats to take over the majority, the first time they led the House in over 40 years.
Newt Gingrich, the architect behind the 1994 takeover who became Speaker of the House in 1995, predicts that "if the economy stays as bad as it, and unemployment maintains its numbers or drops, odds are good that (House Minority Leader John) Boehner is the next Speaker of the House."
While that may be premature, nonpartisan political pundits like Jennifer Duffy with the Cook Political Report are predicting Democratic losses in 2010: "In the House, the average midterm shift is 16 seats. We're probably talking more than that."
This year should have meant two home games for Democrats in New Jersey and Virginia. Indeed, both states would have been Democratic slam-dunks a year ago. But Nov. 3 can be a long time coming: McDonnell has begun to pull way in Virginia but Corzine, the Democratic incumbent in New Jersey, rose to a statistical dead heat with Christie after launching a fall flurry of attack ads worth $20 million. Once voters in Virginia and New Jersey cast their ballots, Republicans have 365 days to wait and see which direction the electorate is moving.
-with reporting by Jacob Parrish