The 2005 Off-Off-Year Elections

Hardfast Harbinger or Harmless Happenstance?


Has anyone noticed that neither of the two states electing Governors on November 8th is getting the Chief Executive the people want?

In New Jersey, interim Governor Dick Codey (D), the State Senate President who succeeded the resigned Governor Jim McGreevey (D) in 2004, would win in a walk if he were on the ballot as the Democratic nominee. Codey has been a smash hit, but the party bosses in the corruption-plagued Garden State insisted on Jon Corzine (D), an undistinguished one-term U.S. Senator, noted not for his governing abilities but his enormous Wall Street wealth. In Virginia, another wealthy businessman, Governor Mark Warner (D), is enjoying approval ratings in the 70s and would be reelected in a landslide were it not for the Old Dominion’s one-of-a-kind, one-term-and-out rule.

So instead we have a couple of open-seat contests without overwhelming favorites. And waiting on the sidelines are hundreds of journalists and analysts eager to read far too much into the outcomes of these off-off-year elections.

New Jersey Devils?

In New Jersey Democrat Corzine is facing the GOP’s Doug Forrester, who would have been elected to a U.S. Senate seat in 2002 had the Democrats not dumped their scandal-ridden incumbent, Bob Torricelli. The party substituted ex-Senator Frank Lautenberg just weeks ahead of the election, and Lautenberg beat Forrester by a wide margin. There has been much speculation, and many polls, suggesting that New Jerseyans are finally fed up with the state’s endemic corruption–enough to say no to Corzine and elect Forrester. We’ve never bought it, and we do not believe it now. Is there some chance of a Forrester upset? Yes. Is the likely winner in this deeply Blue Northeastern state the nominee of the Democratic party? Yep. A more likely upset for the Republicans in New Jersey may come in 2006, when Corzine’s vacated Senate seat will be up for election. As long as Corzine doesn’t appoint Codey–who would instantly become a substantial favorite to hold the seat–the substitute Democratic interim Senator will face a very tough challenger from state Senator Tom Kean, Jr., son of the former, very popular Governor who was co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission.

Virginia Gentlemen?

Far closer than the New Jersey statehouse race is the battle for the Governorship of Virginia. In 2001, as Mark Warner was recapturing the big prize for Virginia Democrats, Tim Kaine (D) was elected Lieutenant Governor with just 50.3 percent and Jerry Kilgore (R) was elected Attorney General with a robust 60 percent. From election night onwards, they were the automatic party rivals for Governor in 2005, since Warner couldn’t run. (This happens with some frequency in Virginia, since only three statewide officials are elected by the people.) For the first three years, given his much broader 2001 mandate, Kilgore was considered the clear favorite over Kaine, and polls indicated that he led Kaine consistently, usually by 7-10 percentage points. But some funny things happened as the election year dawned:

  1. Despite having raised taxes by $1.4 billion, Mark Warner’s popularity skyrocketed, and his chosen successor, Lt. Gov. Kaine, became the beneficiary.
  2. President Bush’s popularity cratered, even in conservative Virginia, and for the first time since President Nixon in 1973, a GOP President became a burden for a GOP gubernatorial nominee.
  3. Kaine turned out to be the better, smoother, more articulate candidate on the stump and in most debates, gradually eroding the early lead for Kilgore until the margin had almost disappeared.

At the same time, the Republican Kilgore retains several advantages:

  1. Virginia still leans Red, despite Bush’s troubles, and down below the liberal Northern Virginia localities, the state is mainly conservative, with many rural areas sure to line up overwhelmingly in Kilgore’s column.
  2. Kaine is more liberal than Warner on guns, gay rights, and the death penalty–ammunition that Kilgore has been using, with mixed success, in his TV ads and speeches.
  3. While both parties have put major financial resources into get-out-the-vote efforts, the GOP (with significant assistance from the Republican National Committee) is widely thought to have the more effective program. Potentially, this could add, net, a percent or two to Kilgore’s Election Day total.

Two weeks out from the election, the Kaine-Kilgore contest is as tight as a tick, and it cannot be called with any certainty. The last half-dozen public polls have shown the candidates essentially tied, within the margin of error; some have had Kaine up a percentage point or two, others have had Kilgore up by the same statistically insignificant edge. Last-minute advertising, new issues, gaffes, controversies, and even dirty tricks could tilt this race. (It will shock few readers to learn that both sides have already employed questionable tactics this year; we will not explain further lest we assist their nefarious schemes. There will be time enough after the election for an accounting.)

Harbinger or Happenstance?

On November 8th, once the returns are in, everyone will ask one question: What do the New Jersey and Virginia results mean for the national picture, for President Bush, and for the 2006 midterm elections?

We could pen the national party e-mail press releases right now. If both contests go one way, the winning party will crow that these elections are harbingers–ominous predictors of impending doom for the other party. The losing party will of course claim that the 2005 elections are local contests that turned on state issues and personalities. So what’s the truth?

In New Jersey, unhappiness with President Nixon in 1973 certainly contributed to the election of Democrat Brendan Byrne in 1973, and disaffection with President Clinton helped Republican Christine Todd Whitman win the Governorship in 1993. Similarly, in Virginia, Nixon’s problems–which included the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew a month ahead of the 1973 election and the “Saturday Night Massacre” of the Watergate special prosecutor and others about two weeks before election day–nearly resulted in the defeat of Republican nominee Mills E. Godwin, Jr. by liberal Henry E. Howell, Jr. (Godwin won by 15,000 votes in what was then Virginia’s closest-ever election for Governor.) These four cases are the only ones in recent decades where a President’s low poll ratings can be said to have had a decisive effect at the polls. It is possible that, if both Democrats win this November, we will have added two more case studies; New Jersey is arguable, but in Virginia, Bush’s low ratings have wiped out most of Kilgore’s natural party advantage.

And what of the future? Will 2005 foretell 2006? The record is very mixed. Let’s take the last four off-off year elections in New Jersey and Virginia. In 1989 Jim Florio (D) and Doug Wilder (D) captured the New Jersey and Virginia statehouses–the Garden State switched from Republican to Democratic control–yet in 1990, there was no discernible movement to either party in the midterm congressional elections. In 1993 Christie Whitman (R-NJ) and George Allen (R-VA) led a GOP sweep in the major contests that year, and sure enough, their victories presaged the anti-Clinton congressional landslide for the Republicans in 1994. In 1997, the GOP’s Whitman was reelected in New Jersey and Jim Gilmore (R) succeeded Allen in Virginia, but in 1998, the Democrats fared well in congressional elections, partly due to a backlash against the Clinton impeachment effort. In 2001, despite Bush’s sky-high popularity after 9/11, Democrats Jim McGreevey and Mark Warner won New Jersey and Virginia; the following year, Republicans recaptured the U.S. Senate and added six U.S. House seats.

So what does this show? In two cases, the off-off year elections were indicators of the following year’s political trends, and in the other two cases, they weren’t. Please remember this unimpressive record of prognostication when you read the party press releases and the gee-whiz news stories next month. Here’s the useless summary, based on history: The off-off year elections of 2005 may either be a harbinger of things to come in 2006, or they may not be.

For New Jersey and Virginia, it matters a lot who wins and who governs for the next four years. For everybody else, the elections probably don’t mean much. President Bush and the Republicans are in deep trouble in 2005. Whether these calamities will extend all the way to November 2006 is anyone’s guess, and early indicators such as New Jersey and Virginia can be spot on…or very misleading.