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Scandals, social issues headline 2009 governors’ races

In the first statewide elections since the Great Recession was declared, economic issues are competing with ethics and social issues for voters’ attention in New Jersey and Virginia – the only gubernatorial contests this year.

At issue are a $46,000 loan by a candidate in New Jersey and a controversial 1989 master’s thesis in Virginia, but the stakes are much higher for the parties.

Even though the races in New Jersey and Virginia will be won on local issues, both parties hope that wins this November will provide momentum for next year’s 37 contests for governor. The New Jersey seat is drawing the most interest because the GOP hopes to unseat the sitting governor, Democrat Jon Corzine.

“If Chris Christie, the Republican, wins in New Jersey, he and this race will become a symbol to the Republicans nationally, a beacon of hope that a Democratic incumbent can be defeated,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

This election is the first since Democrats took control last November of the White House, Congress and a majority of governor’s seats and state legislative chambers. When voters went to the polls last November, they didn’t know the country officially had already entered a recession the previous year. That announcement came in December 2008. Voters in this election could hold the party accountable for how the economy is doing and how their own pocketbooks are faring.

“If the GOP wins both and wins them big, it will be tough for Democrats to explain them away, given that New Jersey is a solidly blue state and Virginia is trending in that direction,” said Tom Schaller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In the 39 states electing governors this year and next, Democrats will defend 21 of those seats, including both 2009 contests. The races will be wide open in at least 20 states in 2010 because incumbents either will retire or are term-limited.

Polls indicate the Democratic gubernatorial candidates have been trailing in both the New Jersey and Virginia races.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, N.J., said the race in the Garden State is a referendum on Corzine, not President Obama. “But the Obama people realize, win or lose, it will be perceived as a referendum on President Obama” and that’s why the president made early campaign appearances there, he said.

Click here for a printable reference sheet covering the upcoming governors’ races.

Ethics get attention in New Jersey

Experts predict economic issues will move to the forefront when the races in New Jersey and Virginia get to the homestretch, but for now, other issues are grabbing more headlines.

In New Jersey, polls show that property tax is voters’ top issue, but candidates are focusing more on scandals and ethics.

Corzine, who spent $40 million of his own money in the 2005 election, has blanketed the airwaves with ads criticizing Christie, a former prosecutor, for giving contracts to people with ties to former President George W. Bush and lending $46,000 to a former co-worker without reporting it, as required by law.

The Republican Governors Association has run ads disputing Corzine’s claims and instead focuses on the tax hikes and rising unemployment that occurred during Corzine’s term. Just this year, lawmakers raised some $1 billion in taxes, including raising income taxes on those who earn more than $400,000 a year and eliminating a popular property-tax rebate for those who make more than $250,000 annually.

“New Jersey is hardened to in-your-face politics. Is the Corzine v Christie slugfest just regular campaign stuff or nasty even by New Jersey’s rugged standards? Standard stuff,” says Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute when the institute released its latest poll results Sept. 1.

The New Jersey race also includes an independent, Chris Daggett, a former state environmental official, who runs a distant third in the polls, but it’s still unclear which candidate would lose more votes to Daggett.

Something brand new on the New Jersey ballot this year will be lieutenant governor candidates. In 2005, voters approved creating the No. 2 position after then-Gov. Jim McGreevey’s (D) sex scandal gave the top job to Senate President Richard Codey (D) because the state didn’t have a lieutenant governor. It was the second time in three years that New Jersey used this succession plan.

Corzine picked as a running mate state Sen. Loretta Weinberg of Bergen County; Christie selected Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno; and Daggett chose Frank Esposito, a college professor.

Social issues flare in Virginia race

In Virginia, the only state that sends its governors home after one four-year term, social issues dominate the race to succeed Gov. Tim Kaine (D).

The race is rematch of the 2005 attorney general’s race that Republican Bob McDonnell won over Democrat Creigh Deeds by 360 votes.

State Sen. Deeds, last month made abortion a key front in his battle against McDonnell, who opposes abortion in all cases, including rape or incest. Previous campaigns have seen Republicans put Democrats on the defense about their support for abortion.

But it’s not McDonnell’s abortion stance that is drawing the most attention. He is now fending off questions about his decades-old master’s thesis – written when he was 34 – that says working women and feminists are “detrimental” to the family and that government policy should be weighted to couples over “cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators.”

John J. McGlennon, chair of government at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, said McDonnell’s comments in the thesis have given “new life” to some Democrats. “The social issue adds another factor to motivate some voters,” he said.

McDonnell, who has campaigned across the state in an RV, has been leading in polls, as much as by 15 percentage points.

On the issues of taxes and government spending, voters overwhelmingly favor McDonnell’s views, but on the critical issue of transportation, they are more evenly divided between the two candidates, according to a Sept. 2 Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Virginia voters.

A group supported by the Democratic Governors Association has been running ads criticizing McDonnell for opposing a move to make the state’s unemployment benefits more generous. In the last session, the Democratic-held Senate had narrowly approved changes that would allow the state to collect $125 million more in federal stimulus money, but the Republican-controlled House of Delegates blocked because the state would have had to expand benefits indefinitely to receive the money.

Deeds has distanced himself from Kaine, who has been criticized for spending too much time as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Instead, ads link Deeds with former Gov. Mark Warner (D), now a U.S. Senator and Obama, who last fall was the first Democrat to carry the state since 1964 in a presidential election.

But history is on the Republicans’ side. In every gubernatorial election since 1977, the party that is not in the White House wins the Virginia governorship.

Democrats also are eying the Virginia House of Delegates, where all 100 seats are up this fall.


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