The Other Campaign: Jon Corzine versus Creigh Deeds

In Virginia, the most popular drama of 2009 may well be Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

No, I am not referring to the 1936 movie starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur for which director Frank Capra received an Oscar. Instead, I am writing about Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds, who last week won a come-from-behind Democratic gubernatorial primary election victory by a 2 to1 margin over former State Delegate Brian Moran and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Deeds now emerges also as a rival to New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine for the political affections of President Barack Obama.

The polls last week in Virginia and New Jersey told the story of Deeds surging against his Republican opponent, former Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell, while Jon Corzine’s candidacy for reelection against Republican former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie is on life support. The Rasmussen Reports Virginia poll released on June 11 shows Deeds leading McDonnell by six points, 47-41, while their New Jersey poll released on June 4 reports Christie comfortably ahead of Corzine by thirteen points, 51-38. The Quinnipiac New Jersey Poll released on June 10 similarly shows Christie leading by ten points, 50-40.

In their Star-Ledger column today, Josh Margolin and Claire Heininger report that top operatives at the White House and Democratic National Committee (DNC) are very worried about the possibility of a Corzine loss and the impact it would have on the President’s political momentum and therefore are committing resources to the Corzine campaign. One can infer that the term “resources” includes several Obama campaign visits to the Garden State.

I believe, however, that if Christie continues to maintain a double digit lead over Corzine going into mid-September, it is quite possible that the White House and the DNC will decide to “cut their losses” in New Jersey and concentrate virtually all their political resources and attention on the Virginia race.

Creigh Deeds is a conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat, a political genre which Virginia voters seem to absolutely love. While pro-choice on abortion, Deeds is fiscally conservative and pro-Second Amendment on gun issues, which makes him highly acceptable to Virginia gun owners. Former Governor and current U.S. Senator Mark Warner and present Governor Tim Kaine are both Blue Dog Democrats and are perceived by Virginians as being successful Governors, particularly Warner. For Deeds, the general election is a rematch against McDonnell, who defeated him for Virginia Attorney General by 323 votes in 2005. He must be regarded as the favorite at this point, despite genuine Republican grassroots enthusiasm for McDonnell.

Virginia is made to order for a major Barack Obama political campaign effort. In spite of his liberalism, Obama works very well with Blue Dog Democrats – he appointed Tim Kaine in January, 2009 to serve as Chair of the Democratic National Committee. While in New Jersey neither party is viewed with overwhelming esteem by the electorate, in Virginia, the Democrats are resurgent, controlling both the Governor’s office and both U.S. Senate seats (Warner and Jim Webb). Northern Virginia is clearly an Obama stronghold, consisting of growing populations of the young (18-30) and minorities, including African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians.

A Deeds victory in Virginia would be viewed as a victory for Obama as well, at a time when the President needs political momentum in dealing with the Congress on critical budgetary and health care issues. If Corzine is defeated after a major New Jersey Obama campaign effort, however, this would largely offset the political benefit to the President from a Deeds victory.

Complicating the New Jersey picture is the Corzine Lieutenant Governor selection. Corzine is said to be currently inclined to select Senator Loretta Weinberg of Bergen County for the nomination. Various key New Jersey African-American leaders, however, are contending that Corzine should select as his running mate an African-American. No constituency has been more loyal to the New Jersey Democratic Party than the African-American community.

A majority of New Jersey African-Americans would therefore be understandably resentful if their leading political figures were once again passed over by the Democrats for an opportunity for a statewide elective office, in this case, the Lieutenant Governor nomination. This could result in a less than overwhelming African-American vote for Corzine in November. Furthermore, Obama would be unhappy to have to answer questions from the press on a New Jersey campaign trip as to what he thought of Corzine not selecting an African-American running mate.

Thus, Virginia is a potential political land of opportunity for Obama and the Democrats, while New Jersey constitutes a political quagmire for the President, particularly if Corzine does not select an African-American running mate. Regardless of what one thinks about President Obama’s policies, nobody can deny that he is a person of enormous political sagacity. He has always been careful not to waste his political capital on situations where he could be perceived as incurring a setback.

A perfect example of this was the 2008 Georgia U.S. Senate runoff election. In spite of the fact that Democrat Jim Martin only trailed incumbent Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss by three percent in the November general election, Obama refrained from making a campaign appearance for Martin in Georgia in the runoff election, limiting himself to recorded commercials. Obama’s judgment was proven correct – Chambliss defeated Martin by fourteen points in the runoff contest.

If Corzine is a likely loser, the President would prefer that the newspaper stories on the day after the 2009 election state how he helped ensure the Virginia victory of Creigh Deeds while wisely not spending significant political capital in New Jersey, thus avoiding any political damage from the New Jersey Republican gubernatorial victory. Obama may well be viewing as historical precedent former President George H.W. Bush’s refraining from campaigning for Jim Courter against Jim Florio in 1989, except for a token airport appearance. Thus, Bush 41 incurred no negative political impact from the Florio landslide.

In my most recent column, I wrote that only Barack Obama can save Jon Corzine from defeat in November. My thoughts were echoed by the highly respected University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato in the Margolin-Heininger Star-Ledger article today.

In two elections in modern political history, a popular President has campaigned in New Jersey for a gubernatorial candidate and enabled him to win the election: John F. Kennedy in 1961 on behalf of Dick Hughes and Ronald Reagan on behalf of Tom Kean in 1981. Both Hughes and Kean became highly successful New Jersey governors.

As non-incumbents, neither Hughes nor Kean had any significant negatives, and thus a popular President was able to be of enormous value to each of them in their respective initial gubernatorial election campaigns. As the Quinnipiac Poll showed, President Obama is enormously popular in New Jersey, but he would be campaigning for one of the most unpopular state governors in the nation. Why would Obama risk his political stature on an almost certainly unsuccessful Corzine reelection campaign when he could bask in the sunshine of a likely Creigh Deeds victory?

Despite the claims of total commitment to Corzine by the White House and DNC reported in the Star-Ledger today, I believe that Obama will wait until mid-September to make a decision as to how many campaign trips to New Jersey he will make on Corzine’s behalf. If as a result of the polls Obama decides to make only a token Corzine campaign appearance, then Chris Christie's victory will be a certainty.

I began this column by stating a movie metaphor for the Creigh Deeds campaign. In the event of a Corzine defeat, there will be a movie metaphor for the campaign of New Jersey’s plutocrat incumbent Governor as well: Citizen Kane. In this regard, there is a fillip relevant to New Jersey to keep in mind: Citizen Kane lived on an estate called Xanadu.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations. The Other Campaign:  Jon Corzine versus Creigh Deeds