Elections in an off-off year

Published 8:43 am Wednesday, June 24, 2009

People who live for politics appreciate what real votes in real elections mean. It’s pure heroin for junkies.

There is no cold turkey like the one between the end of a presidential election and the midterm election that occurs two full years later. The presidential high — the flood of votes in all 50 states for the Electoral College and the thousands of contests for every other office under the sun — is intense. It takes weeks to devour the totals, and months to think through what they mean.

Then comes the void, an emptiness that rivals the black vacuum between galaxies. Six months after a president is chosen, the political community has the shakes, and begs for votes, real votes any votes. And that is why New Jersey’s and Virginia’s contests for governor always assume a larger role than their actual importance merits.

Here we are in the off-off year again, and sure enough, the statehouse battles in the Garden State and the Old Dominion are the focus of a surprising degree of attention.

As the last state with a one-consecutive-term limit, Virginia never has an incumbent seeking re-election, and the 2009 open seat race to succeed Gov. Tim Kaine has undergone a radical transformation.

For much of the year, national and state political observers tagged the unopposed Republican nominee, former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, as the autumn favorite. In part, this is because of a three decades-long Virginia trend to elect a governor opposite to the party of the president. Beginning in 1977, for eight consecutive elections, Virginia has elected a Republican governor every time a Democrat was in the White House or a Democratic governor every time a Republican occupied the Oval Office.

The Democratic nominee, Creigh Deeds, is a native Virginian, a rarity these days since three of the last four Virginia chief executives were born and raised out of the state. A rural, western Democrat, Deeds is ideologically well positioned for the campaign. A moderate Democrat overall, with a conservative position on the Second Amendment, Deeds nicely fits the profile of modern successful Democratic candidates. He will have the active backing of Sen. Mark Warner and Gov. Tim Kaine, both of whom maintain high popularity. Kaine’s job approval is usually in the mid-50s to low 60s, while Warner’s is even higher, in the mid-60s to 70s. Virginians appear to be perfectly satisfied with the Warner-Kaine style of governance, and the burden is on McDonnell to show why a change is needed.

Moreover, McDonnell has no truly popular, vote-moving GOP figure, state or national, to campaign by his side. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, John McCain, George Allen and Jim Gilmore are either unpopular, or have lost elections in Virginia, or both. Conservative talk-show hosts are no substitute. And sooner or later, McDonnell’s close ties to fundamentalist preachers Pat Robertson, whose university gave McDonnell his law degree, and Jerry Falwell Jr., whose Liberty University is in a controversial scrape with the campus Young Democrats, will prove controversial.

The tiebreakers in this election will be President Obama, the state of the economy, and the specific issues developed by both sides as the campaign progresses. So far, Barack Obama has maintained his popularity in Virginia. If that remains true, his appearances for Creigh Deeds in the fall could be very helpful, especially in Northern Virginia and among African-American voters. As for the black vote, Deeds lost in 2005 in part because he trailed Tim Kaine in heavily African-American precincts by a little over 3 percentage points. African-Americans were less excited about Deeds than other Democrats on the ticket at the time, but Obama could change that equation in 2009.

Nonetheless, if President Obama’s popularity goes south before November, either because of continuing economic dislocation or some other reason, then Virginians may well send the usual off-year message of “change and balance” by voting Republican for governor. Neither Deeds nor McDonnell can control the international economy or Obama’s Gallup Poll ratings, but these factors could determine their fates.

As the campaign unfolds, we will return to the two central elections of 2009 again and again. After all, they’re the only immediate game in town.

But we caution our friends about reading too much global significance into the results of a couple of isolated elections in an off-off year. We’ve been at this business a long time — since 1965, in fact. In the 11 sets of New Jersey-Virginia contests from 1965 to 2005, there has been a clear, compelling connection between the off-off year outcome and the following year’s midterm election pattern exactly twice. Please remember this when you hear national commentators claim that the 2009 elections will predict the 2010 results. Though that is possible, the bulk of modern history suggests otherwise.