Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Races to watch: Virginia, New York and New Jersey

OFF-YEAR ELECTIONS have consequences too. By the end of today, that’s likely to be the big takeaway from election results around the United States. The 2012 election results were widely interpreted to be a signal of the nation’s demographic evolution. But the year since then has seen congressional conservatives, their proxies and financial enablers mounting a furious pushback against an evolving populist agenda.

This first vote since 2012’s bellwether should show us if that election has the momentum we expected, or if conservatives gather a new momentum — despite the continuing internal divide over exactly what the hell defines a “conservative” in the first place.

Three races in particular will be solid barometers for what’s coming, or not. In Virginia, a wounded Republican goes up against a capable Democrat favored to win in a state that’s a Southern state that’s broken with that party’s orthodoxy more than once inn recent years. In ever-blue New Jersey, a popular Republican governor stands poised to flatten his Democratic challenger, suggesting that at least the optics of moderation can work for the GOP and may even be exportable. And in New York, a full-throated progressive is poised to return the city to Democratic control, in a renunciation of the imperial mayoralty of Mike Bloomberg, and possibly a victory that proves, decisively or otherwise, that the liberal agenda has reach beyond New York City, and legs to last into 2016.

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KEN CUCCINELLI, the Virginia Attorney General seeking to replace Bob McDonnell as governor, went into his current campaign tainted by the actions of the man he hopes to replace. McDonnell, who never saw a shiny object he didn’t like, was undone by the results of a corruption investigation, which determined that McDonnell received a horde of luxury gifts and cash and other perks, including use of a private jet, and a $6,500 Rolex watch.

He also failed to report his wife’s paid consultancy position on a required statement of economic concerns. Now, add to that the governor doing his part to undermine women’s reproductive rights in Virginia, by pledging to sign into law SB484, a measure that would have required any woman seeking a first-trimester abortion in Virginia to undergo a medically unnecessary vaginal probe to “determine gestational age” — an invasive transvaginal ultrasound procedure that amounts to state-sanctioned rape. The measure was amended before it became law, with its more invasive components stripped out, thanks to a torrent of popular reaction.

Virginia has a one-and-done rule that prevents the kind of gubernatorial recidivism that happens in about a third of the country, so McDonnell couldn’t have been re-elected anyway. But any hope of Cuccinelli riding McDonnell’s coattails into the statehouse, on any wave of good feeling by his predecessor, has been dissipated by McDonnell himself.

Cuccinelli hardly helped his own cause. The attorney general waged a lackluster campaign compared to that of Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic challenger, former wheel in the Democratic Party, and friend and confidante of a still widely-admired former president named Bill Clinton.

And Cuccinelli, by virtue of the GOP’s ongoing existential saga, was at a big disadvantage thanks to his own ultraconservative record, beloved by the Tea Party faithful rallied behind him. He obliged them by coming out against immigration reform — ignoring the increasingly diverse demographics of the state he hopes to run — and he’d already bought into Transvaginal Bob McDonnell’s restrictions of women’s reproductive rights. But Cuccinelli never widened his strike zone of support, and left himself nowhere to go beyond the ritual genuflections to the Tea Party crew.

Beth Reinhard observed today in The Atlantic: “Granted, Tea Party politicians can thrive in Republican-heavy states or congressional districts, but by their very nature they face enormous challenges in expanding and diversifying battlegrounds such as Virginia. Any candidate who swears allegiance to conservative orthodoxy automatically forsakes constituencies needed to build winning electoral coalitions on big, broad canvases.”

“In a state President Obama carried twice, Cuccinelli’s rigid policy positions endear him to the Tea Party but cut him off from key swaths of voters. The attorney general assailed a $600 million transportation-funding package to relieve the state’s economy-choking congestion, because it raises taxes — heresy in Tea Party world. But traffic is a top issue in commuter-heavy Northern Virginia, where statewide races are largely won and lost. The bipartisan initiative was also widely applauded by the business community, a key GOP constituency that blew off Cuccinelli and, in some cases, ran into McAuliffe’s arms.”

In the coming hours, we’ll find out how deep that embrace of a Democrat will be.

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THE OFFICE of Governor is in some ways the ideal springboard from which to seek higher office, like the presidency. For many Americans on Election Day, there’s no doubt the thought that a reasonably successful governor — already running about 2 percent of the country — might just take his/her good state ideas to the national level.

Chris Christie’s not there yet, but his expected re-election victory today over a game but hopelessly overmatched Democratic challenger, Barbara Buono, will add steam to that sub-narrative — in the minds of New Jerseyans and maybe the GOP establishment — between now and 2016.

Christie has a lead over Buono that’s deep into double digits, in an election that’s become the textbook definition of a “walkover.” A man on the glide path to a second term as governor of the Garden State, Christie wields a style of governance that’s as close to centrist as Republicans get these days.

And with good reason. The governor punched up his leadership bona fides and his national profile during Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath, bonding with his citizens in a dramatic, visceral way. His Jersey Shore walk with President Obama after the storm was an optical triumph, one that works to his advantage as he seeks to broaden his appeal with at least the appearance of outreach.

Michael O’Brien of NBC News well framed the question of what’s coming next:

“As he pivots toward a possible bid for the presidency, Christie will have to decide: Should he firmly embrace the relatively-centrist persona he worked so hard to burnish during his first term, or move toward the right in hopes of winning over conservative activists who weigh heavily upon presidential nominating contests?”

Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, outlined Christie’s dilemma. “No Republican will be successful in the Northeast if they’re not good at outreach to groups that aren’t traditional Republicans,” Fleischer told O’Brien.

“And Chris Christie is excellent at it – he’s so excellent at it that Republicans don’t trust him,”

A convincing Christie victory tonight will prove he can walk the walk as a serious politician with bipartisan appeal, if not bipartisan policymaking. With talk growing of his viability for a White House run in 2016, it’s still to be seen whether the coming fork in the road for Christie ultimately reveals a fork in the tongue.

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NEW YORK CITY Public Advocate Bill de Blasio faces no such crossroads in his quest to being New York’s next mayor, and its first Democratic chief executive in 20 years. Leading his Republican challenger, Joe Lhota, by a monster margin — he had a 43-point lead in a September Wall Street Journal poll — de Blasio’s race is as close to an absolute lock as any race in the country today.

Some wonder: Why make a change? With crime at record low levels, the economy on the rebound and the city enjoying a renascence as a tourist and business destination, all largely occurring under Bloomberg’s gilded watch, why change the party behind the drapes at Gracie Mansion?

The answer may have to do with perception and the style of governance. Bloomberg’s existential distance from the people of New York City was implicit in his status as its first billionaire mayor. But it trickled down into the real world of policy, in ways that were problematic for Bloomberg. His bid for nanny-state control over personal behavior was sometimes embarrassing — look at that foolish bid to control the size of soft drinks at fast-food restaurants — and clearly indicated Bloomberg’s imperious inclination for overreach, however civic-minded it may have been.

And Bloomberg’s penchant for control extended to the control he conceded to the New York Police Department. Bloomberg’s approval of the NYPD’s infamous “stop-and-frisk” policy was corrosive both to the city’s reputation and his own relations with progressive, minority and LGBT citizens — the same cohorts of New Yorkers who can be counted on to pull the lever for de Blasio today.

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DE BLASIO is likely to win despite campaign pledges that would seem self-destructive. He’s promised to raise taxes on high-income New Yorkers and increase city services to the poor and disadvantaged. Lhota — to the degree that his campaign stood for anything singular or notable — largely retreated to the safe harbor of small/smaller-government Republican philosophy in pursuit of maintaining the city’s status quo.

After decades of Republican leadership, New Yorkers may well have felt it was time for a change. With no big sudden disasters to galvanize the populace — no 9/11 redux, thankfully — the citizens of a reliably Democratic city had no compelling reason to depart from voting as usual.

Harry Bruinius of the Christian Science Monitor observed this on Monday: “[T]hough it seems counterintuitive, the very social and financial stability of the city, which Lhota has vowed to maintain, would appear to have worked against the candidate. In the absence of a crisis – or a candidate with magnetic personal appeal – voters usual vote according to their party affiliation.”

What remains uncertain is the margin of de Blasio’s likely win. As mayor he becomes the head of a city government with 300,000 employees, a $70 billion budget and a $2 billion+ deficit. But a Mayor de Blasio will inherit something else.

Depending on that margin of victory, de Blasio takes the helm of a city whose electoral statement tonight will send a signal that news of the death or incapacity of full-throated Northeastern liberalism is greatly exaggerated, and that a populist legislative agenda needn’t be limited to the Northeast between now and 2016. The probable next mayor of the biggest city in the nation inherits a populist tradition that’s helped more than one New Yorker move from there to a fancier address, on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Image credits: Cuccinelli: Ryan Stone/The Washington Post. Christie and Obama, de Blasio: via MSNBC.

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