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What's the Matter with New Jersey?

11:08 AM, Oct 14, 2009 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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As Republican candidate Bob McDonnell maintains his lead in the Virginia gubernatorial race, everyone is turning to the New Jersey contest. And for good reason! At first glance the election there is much more interesting than in Virginia. Despite a horrible approval rating, incumbent Democrat John Corzine is in a statistical tie with Republican challenger Chris Christie. The reason is spoiler candidate Christopher Daggett, who is drawing Republicans and independents away from the GOP candidate.

If Corzine pulls out an upset victory on Election Day, expect the administration, Democrats in Congress, and liberal pundits to downplay the results in Virginia, where most people expect McDonnell to win. They'll say that the off-year election was a split decision, so you can't really draw generalizations from it. And maybe so. But, when one considers just how different the political landscape is in 2009 compared to 2008, a Republican victory in Virginia unaccompanied by victory in New Jersey still ought to give the Democrats pause.

Why? First, a Corzine upset would not be a vote of confidence in his administration or in liberal-left policy approaches, since the anti-Corzine vote (Christie's share plus Daggett's) is bound to be larger than the pro-Corzine vote. Moreover, New Jersey is about as blue as you can get. According to the Almanac of American Politics, no Republican candidate in any contest for president or governor has won more than 50 percent of the vote in New Jersey since 1988. New Jersey hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972. Obama won the state in 2008 with 57 percent of the vote. New Jersey isn't a swing state.

Virginia is. Until Obama won Virginia last year with 53 percent, no Democrat had won the state since 1964. Democrats have controlled the governor's office since 2001, and picked up both Senate seats in 2006 and 2008. Yes, Creigh Deeds looks like a particularly weak candidate. But then, if he were winning, we'd all think he's a genius. A Republican victory three weeks from now in Virginia would show that the Obama coalition has diminished in the Old Dominion, just as that coalition has diminished nationally, with independents abandoning the president. It would also show that what Michael Barone calls "the balance of enthusiasm" now clearly favors the Republicans and their allies. And these lessons will be important for a simple reason: Virginia matters more than New Jersey.