- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 28, 2009



The Democrats and their friends in the national news media never miss an opportunity to report how unpopular Republicans are in the Age of Obama. Clearly, the Republican Party has a lot to prove if it is to regain majority status.

However, we may see signs of a Republican comeback sooner than anyone thought in the off-year gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia in November. Don’t laugh. Independent polls show the Republican candidates are ahead of the Democrats in both contests.

Heavily Democratic New Jersey’s Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, the superrich former Wall Street financier, has seen his disapproval numbers soar as a result of the recession, which has hit his state hard. Unemployment is the highest in 16 years, and the state has the highest property-tax burden in the country, which has angry voters favoring former U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie, the Republican front-runner, by 45 percent to 38 percent, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.

The same story is at work in Virginia, where Republicans have a chance of recapturing the governorship in the Democratic-leaning state in an open race. Gov Tim Kaine, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman, is limited to one term.

Three Democrats are vying for their party’s nomination, including former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, the front-runner. However, for months polls have shown Republican Bob McDonnell, the former state attorney general, leading all three of his potential rivals.

Mr. Obama carried both states last year. However, veteran election trackers, including Stuart Rothenberg in his latest forecast, are putting these races in the “tossup” column.

History appears to be on the Republican Party’s side in each race. In New Jersey, no Democratic governor has been re-elected since 1977. Also, in the past eight presidential elections since 1976, “the party that loses the White House has won the Virginia governorship the following year,” Mr. Rothenberg noted.

The New Jersey election is in many ways the most interesting because of its heavily Democratic electorate. Mr. Corzine, who made millions on Wall Street and bought his way into office with $50 million of his own money, was seen as skillful in economic policy.

Yet he plunged the state into $3 billion in debt and is raising taxes on the hard-pressed economy at a time when it can ill afford higher levies. He is calling for eliminating property-tax rebates - which would hit middle-class homeowners especially hard - along with a 4 percent surcharge on New Jersey’s struggling businesses.

The Quinnipiac poll showed his overall disapproval score at 54 percent, and voters disapprove of the way he is handling the economy by 58 percent to 32 percent.

Remarkably, the relatively unknown Mr. Christie has consistently been ahead of the governor as the recession deepens and unemployment moves inexorably toward 9 percent.

“The state’s [Democratic] bent helps Corzine, but even that may not be enough to save him. In a state where Republicans have fallen off the cliff, Christie has a serious shot of winning,” Mr. Rothenberg said in his Political Report last week.

Mr. Christie has made a reputation for himself as a corruption fighter, convicting more than 130 state officials, Republicans and Democrats alike. With the Republican primary set for June 2, he leads former small-town mayor Steve Lonegan by 56 percent to 33 percent.

Mr. Christie is calling for across-the-board tax cuts and deeper spending cuts to breathe new life into the state’s economy - winning the support of conservative supply-side tax-cutter Steve Forbes.

Still, you can’t count Mr. Corzine out, not with his vast fortune and the hope that the economy may rebound somewhat over the next five months.

But property-tax anger runs deep, and Mr. Corzine’s support among independents is especially weak. Mr. Christie leads him by 50 percent to 31 percent among that group of voters.

“Corzine came in as the wizard of Wall Street; yet he has incredibly mismanaged the finances of this state,” Christie campaign strategist Mike DuHaime told me. “I think he’s going to be judged on his record, and no amount of money that he puts into this race will hide that failed record.”

Republican chances will depend to a large extent on the political climate this fall and whether Mr. Obama’s trickle-down public-works projects will show some improvement in the economy - or fall victim to only anemic growth and stubbornly high unemployment rates.

This time the Republicans have two strong, fiscally conservative candidates who clearly can appeal across party lines. If both of them can score this fall, that will go a long way toward slowing their party’s precipitous decline and show there is life in the Republicans yet.

That would give the party a leg up in the 2010 midterm elections, when the party out of power usually gains seats in Congress. It also stands to pick up more governorships among seven open contests to come. Four of them are in the red states of Oklahoma, Wyoming, Kansas and Tennessee.

This is why Mr. Rothenberg said the “Republicans’ best hope for regaining some territory may well be in gubernatorial races.”

Don Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.

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