For political junkies, this is an off year. There are just two governorships at stake in November — in New Jersey and Virginia. But they both have the potential for becoming a referendum on the Obama presidency.
This is especially true in Virginia, which President Obama carried last year and where Democrats have been on winning streak, but where concerns about the economy may give Republicans the upper hand.
Constituents Care About The Economy
The race in Virginia pits former Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell, a Republican, against state senator Creigh Deeds, a Democrat. McDonnell was raised in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., the vote-rich region of the state that trends democratic. Deeds is from rural Bath, Va.
McDonnell has been pushing a message of fiscal conservatism and economic growth, and polls have shown him with a steady lead over Deeds. According to Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy Virginia's George Mason University, McDonnell's emphasis is well-advised.
"I think McDonnell should be talking about the economy because that is the number one issue in this campaign," says Rozell. "There is a lot of economic anxiety out there and that's true throughout the country of course, not just Virginia where we happen to be having an election this year, and that issue — the general state of the economy, job security — is having the biggest impact of all."
Debate Focuses On Social Views
But the economy is not what Deeds wants to talk about. He's been playing up McDonnell's views on social issues, which were brought to the fore after The Washington Post unearthed a master's thesis McDonnell wrote 20 years ago while a grad student at Regent University, the school founded by evangelist Pat Robertson. In the thesis, McDonnell said among other things that government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators homosexuals or fornicators," and that "working women and feminists were detrimental to the family."
At a debate Thursday sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, Deeds repeatedly launched into McDonnell's conservative views.
"My opponent, in his years in the legislature and as attorney general, never wrote a bill to create a job or to expand an educational opportunity," Deeds charged. "Instead he's been focused on a narrow band of social issues and a social agenda."
McDonnell has dismissed the thesis as "a 20-year-old document" and "academic exercise." He points out that his wife has worked in and out of the home as have his daughters, one of whom served as an Army captain in Baghdad. The women in his family were in the debate audience.
"Creigh, there you go again." McDonnell said. "I told you I support working women. I'm frankly pretty insulted that you would say that my daughter, that I supported and loved for 28 years, to go fight in Iraq, that I don't support working women."
McDonnell further noted that "five out of the 10 deputies in my attorney general's office were working women."
Distancing From The Obama Agenda
Deeds has been playing defense some as well. While Obama won Virginia last year with 52 percent of the vote, economic jitters and concerns over issues from health insurance to cap-and-trade have led Deeds to put some distance between himself and the White House. In the debate he called the president "smart" and "innovative," but asked by moderator David Gregory of NBC News whether he considered himself an "Obama democrat," Deeds, demurred, saying "I'm a Creigh Deeds democrat."
Democrats have been ascendant in Virginia in recent decades. Aside from the president's victory last fall, the state's two U.S. Senators are Democrats, and Democrats won the past two governor races.
The party, however, will be battling more than the issues this year. It will also face something of a political curse: Since 1977, the year after Jimmy Carter was elected president, the party in the White House has lost the Virginia state house in every election.