The stakes in state races

Contests for governor in Virginia and New Jersey Tuesday may foreshadow the 2006 midterms.

Every four years, Virginia and New Jersey play an outsized role on the national political stage by electing their governors in "off-off" years.

And every four years, pundits overanalyze the outcomes and ask the question: Do these two races provide clues to the following year's nationwide congressional elections? Usually, the answer is no.

But sometimes they do. See 1993, when Republican Christine Todd Whitman squeaked into the governor's chair of her solidly Democratic state. A year later, Republicans swept Democrats out of power in Congress.

Tuesday, all eyes are on Virginia - a Republican state that may be on the verge of electing its second Democratic governor in a row. Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine seems likely to win the New Jersey race, but Virginia is too close to call. President Bush's election-eve rally on behalf of Republican Jerry Kilgore in the state capital Monday night puts the prestige of the president himself on the line.

"If the Republicans pull it off and win, it will be gold for Bush, given his low poll standings and all the talk about him not having political capital," says Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia.

"Perhaps the more likely scenario is that Bush makes this last-minute appeal and [Mr. Kilgore] loses. The Democrats are absolutely elated Bush is here. As far as they're concerned, let's put his name on the ballot, too, and have a referendum."

Virginia's relationship to national politics is closer than in most states. One-quarter of Virginia voters live in suburban Washington, many of them federal employees, and to them, inside-the- Beltway wrangling hits home. The rest of Virginia tips conservative, making the state solidly Republican in presidential races.

In Virginia governors' races, Democrats have had success over the years. In fact, in the last seven gubernatorial races in Old Dominion, the party that won the White House the year before has lost the governor's race.

Because Virginia limits its governors to one term, there's never an incumbent running for reelection. "So maybe it's a chance for voters to take out their frustration," says Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes governors' races for the Cook political report.

If the Democrats do win both governors' races on Tuesday, comparisons to 1993 and '94 may be tough to resist. In a way, analysts say, Bush has little to lose by showing up in Virginia right before the election. His presidency is going so badly, a loss in Virginia would be a drop in the bucket compared to all his other woes - the Iraq war, stalled domestic agenda, and the indictment of a top aide.

The question facing both parties now is whether the 1993 comparison will hold for an entire year.

"Conditions really didn't change much between election night '93 and election night '94, so that's why it was a harbinger," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "The question is whether Bush will find a way to regenerate, between now and next November. If elections for Congress were being held next Tuesday, Republicans would lose both houses. The GOP knows it."

In New Jersey, the fortunes of both candidates fueled a race known for its low blows, including an ad featuring Senator Corzine's ex-wife accusing him of having let their family down.

For the Republican, Douglas Forrester, the race has been an uphill climb in a state that may well stick to its blue Democratic roots. Still, there have been signs he could have a chance, including polls showing dissatisfaction with the direction of the state and a desire for change.

Last November, New Jersey flirted with being a battleground state; Democrat John Kerry won the state, but by a lesser margin than Al Gore did in 2000. But that can be attributed to the 9/11 effect. Many 9/11 victims were from the New Jersey suburbs, giving Bush a boost there in 2004. But, says Ms. Duffy, "it's going to take more than one presidential race to determine whether [New Jersey] is a battleground."

The irony for both states, notes Professor Sabato, is that their voters were not offered the most popular potential candidates. Virginia's Gov. Mark Warner (D) is limited to one term, and interim Gov. Dick Codey (D) was maneuvered out of running by state party bosses, says Sabato.

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