Big Stakes for GOP in November Gubernatorial Races

By Jeff McKay | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

(Correction: Clarifies that Democratic governor was replaced, not defeated, by Republican in 1993 Virginia election)

New York ( - In 1993, just one year after Democrat Bill Clinton took office, voters in Virginia and New Jersey shifted gears and replaced Democratic governors with candidates from the GOP.

The Republican National Committee labeled that a call to arms, and those two gubernatorial elections laid the foundation for the "Republican Revolution" of 1994, when voters gave Republicans control of the US House and Senate.

Fast forward to 2001: Just one year after George Bush took office, voters in Virginia and New Jersey will once again choose new governors. Two Republican governors will be leaving office, and the latest polls in both states give the Democratic candidates double-digit leads.

If the GOP loses these states to Democrats, will this become the Democratic "call to arms" for the mid-term elections of 2002?

Virginia GOP Races Against Time

A myriad of polls show Virginia's Republican candidate Mark Earley trailing Democrat Mark Warner by anywhere from 3 to 14 points. However, two things in this race are certain: The Republican is closing the gap, and Bush's popularity is helping.

"While it is very unusual for a Republican to be trailing in October, this is a Republican state, and a Republican here can finish hard and fast," said political analyst Larry J. Sabato, who chairs the University of Virginia's Governmental Studies Department.

Warner's lead has shrunk as of late, due in part to his performance in a recent televised debate. Earley was seen as more effective in the face-to-face discussion.

A particularly stormy session of the Republican-led state legislature is seen as an advantage for Warner, however.

"There is a budget impasse, along with several canceled amendments. State employees have suffered as a result, which is never a positive during an election year," said Sabato.

Warner has also garnered the support of the unions, and his base of power is Northern Virginia, which has the greatest concentration of voters. Even now, with just four weeks left until the election, Earley is still playing catch-up in some Republican strongholds.

Earley has focused his "reformer" message on independents, hoping to gain more ground with those important swing voters. As in New Jersey, Virginia's independent vote is seen as the block that can swings the election.

Sunday's US air strikes on the terrorists and the Taliban may also work to Democrats' advantage in Virginia: The gubernatorial candidates were scheduled to debate again on Sunday, but the debate was cancelled because of the military strikes. Earley has proved to be the better debater.

"Earley is definitely behind the 8-ball. He has to make a move, hard and fast. It's certainly not hopeless," said Sabato.

NJ GOP split

While the New Jersey GOP puts on a "unified" face, behind the scenes, a battle is brewing, and it has the potential to divide the state GOP.

With less than one month until election day, Acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, a moderate, has still not formally endorsed the conservative Republican candidate Bret Schundler.

In fact, DiFrancesco has on many occasions blasted Schundler in the press for his stance on issues, and he still harbors the belief that it was the Schundler campaign that leaked stories to the press about DiFrancesco's business dealings, which forced DiFrancesco to drop out of the race for governor.

"I would have to reconcile a whole lot of issues first," DiFrancesco said about supporting Schundler. "I couldn't just go into a room and five minutes later come out and say he's a great guy. I'm not going to be phony about this."

Bob Franks was the Republican candidate DiFrancesco selected to replace him in the gubernatorial race. But Schundler trounced Franks in the primary. Later, Schundler made Franks and former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean honorary co-chairs of his campaign, but they, too, have been silent since July.

While squabbles split the NJ GOP, Democratic challenger Jim McGreevey still holds a double-digit lead in the polls. The New Jersey candidates have not yet held a public debate, however.

"As people begin to turn their focus back to the election, they will see the strengths that Bret brings to the table," said Schundler spokesperson Bill Guhl. "They will know who has raised taxes and who has lowered them. They will see who can hold spending and who can't. They will see who has a real plan for New Jersey security."

The Democratic National Committee believes this state is ripe for a Democratic takeover. The DNC is pulling out all the stops, including money for ads, and visits by former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY). The DNC also has been able to capitalize on the GOP squabbles.

"All of the polling suggests the party is not unified, and I think this is hurting somewhat," said Republican strategist Stephen Salmore.

"There are a number of (state) Republicans who do not like him (Schundler). DiFrancesco has yet to endorse the top man on the ticket. Christie Whitman (former governor and current EPA director) hasn't been helpful, and Hazel Gluck (an influential pro-choice Republican) has been far from helpful," said Salmore.

While Schundler has previously erased his competition's double-digit lead in the polls (he did it twice in the primary to two different candidates), facing McGreevey will be different, as both independents and Democrats will be voting in November.

Schundler now faces two big hurdles. First, he must win over New Jersey's large independent voting block. Even in the most recent polls, as many as 30 percent of voters said they were still undecided.

Finally, Schundler must win his home base of Hudson County and Jersey City, where Schundler served as mayor. Both are strong Democratic strongholds. Recent polling shows Schundler trailing in Hudson County. Even some in his own county GOP committee may be backing McGreevey.

The Bush Factor

"The President will have to come down here (Virginia) and campaign," said Sabato, who believes Bush needs to be part of the process if Republican candidates are to win. "Sending Cheney will not do it," he added.

Cheney has already helped the Schundler campaign, helping to raise nearly $3 million during a summertime visit. But the Schundler campaign admits it is setting its sights even higher.

"We would love for the president to come to New Jersey and stand with Bret," said Guhl. "However, due to the events of September 11 and the events in Afghanistan, this may be difficult."

Bush's popularity has soared in the state he lost to Al Gore (by 16 points) last November. In only 11 months, and due mostly to the way he has handled himself in office, Bush now holds a whopping 88 percent approval rating statewide.

Regardless of whether Bush campaigns with Schundler in New Jersey or Earley in Virginia, the Republicans are aware of what a loss - especially in Virginia - would mean to the Party. It would give a strategic advantage to Democrats going into the midterm congressional elections in 2002.

"You could explain away any other state race, but not Virginia," said Sabato. "The RNC chairman is from Virginia. "If they (GOP) only win one, they may be able to explain that away. But they could never explain the loss of both. The loss of both will give the Democrats a huge momentum boost for the mid-term elections."