Off-year elections never generate quite as much buzz as presidential years or midterms. But for the two rising Republican stars elected in 2009 — Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and New Jersey governor Chris Christie — the first Tuesday of this November will be a very consequential day for their time in office.
In the commonwealth, all 40 state senators are up for election for a four-year term, and all 100 state delegates are up for election for a two-year term. This year marks the first election under new legislative maps. Republicans control the House 59–39 with two independents, and feel confident of the potential for significant gains this year. Under the new lines, McDonnell carried 73 districts in the 2009 gubernatorial election.
The real contest is in the Virginia state senate, where Democrats hold a 22–18 majority.
“We’re on offense everywhere,” boasts J. Garren Shipley, communications director for Virginia’s Republican party. “All 16 of our incumbent Republican senators are in fine shape — only three have Democratic opposition. Two of our guys were drawn out, but we have two GOP-leaning open seats in exchange: the 22nd district in Central Virginia and the 13th district in Northern Virginia. Both look pretty good at this point.”
McDonnell and his team put a lot of effort into cultivating his reputation as an even-tempered man who can work with both parties, but they feel a Republican senate could make a difference in the scope of what the governor could accomplish in his final two years in office (Virginia governors are limited to one term).
“The governor’s legislative success rate to date with a divided General Assembly is 86 percent, a pretty good batting average,” says Tucker Martin, McDonnell’s communications director. “He’s shown he can get big proposals passed with bipartisan support. Now, if the senate does go Republican, and here I knock on wood, he would have the opportunity to really demonstrate how bold, positive, free-market-based proposals can help the private sector create jobs, spur economic growth, reform government, and improve the lives of our citizens. There’s still two weeks to go, though, and superstition precludes me from speculating further.”
“Despite aggressive gerrymandering, there are at least four or five really competitive races, and probably eight in play, all held by Democrat incumbents,” says Chris Jankowski, president of the Republican State Legislative Committee. “Right now, we believe the senate will shift control to the Republicans. It’s close.”
A big potential storyline of this year’s races could be the Republican comeback in Northern Virginia. The competitive senate races include senator Chuck Colgan’s bid to hold off Republican Tom Gordy in the 29th district, which includes Manassas, Manassas Park, and part of Prince William County; senator George Barker’s bid to hold off Republican Miller Baker in the 39th district, which includes parts of Fairfax and Prince William County and part of Alexandria; and senator Toddy Puller’s effort against former delegate Jeff Frederick in the 36th district, which includes parts of Fairfax, Prince William, and Stafford counties.
Jankowski notes that the key competitive districts in 2011 will also be competitive for a much higher-profile race a year from now: “We’re looking to build the senate majority on seats won in Northern Virginia, places like Prince William County — a county Obama won by 20 points — and Fairfax County. They are trending back Republican, which is a great setup for our party in 2012. These are suburban, competitive swing counties like certain ones in Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida that will be important in next year’s presidential election.”