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Turnout in Virginia, N.J. Could Be a Big Problem for Democrats

We’ve all been reminded repeatedly that Democrats face problems this year because of both the normal drop in midterm turnout and the mix of voters in nonpresidential years (See my “Democrats Face Challenges in Key Districts in 2010,” June 4, 2009). But those national problems will be magnified in a couple of states without high-profile races at the top of the ballot.

Democratic problems in both Virginia and New Jersey, where Republicans won governorships in November, could well be repeated in Congressional contests this year, in part because neither state has a statewide race on the ballot in November.

Republican strategists are bubbling with optimism about their chances of knocking off freshman Rep. John Adler (D) in New Jersey’s 3rd district, a south-central district that stretches from just north of Camden east to the Atlantic Ocean.

Adler won an open Republican seat 52 percent to 48 percent over Chris Myers (R), an unimpressive showing given the Democratic political wave and the fact that Adler spent $2.8 million on the race to Myers’ $1.2 million (and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee outspent the National Republican Congressional Committee by better than 2-to-1).

The district is fundamentally competitive. George W. Bush carried it 51 percent to 48 percent in 2004, while Barack Obama carried it 52 percent to 47 percent in 2008. In last year’s gubernatorial race, Republican sources say, Chris Christie (R) beat Gov. Jon Corzine (D) by 17 points, 56 percent to 39 percent).

Turnout in New Jersey is highest in presidential years, followed by off years when the gubernatorial election is held and then midterm election cycles. Sometimes, the midterm turnout is only slightly below the gubernatorial years — as in 2002, when 2.1 million Garden State voters cast ballots for Senator, compared with 2001, when 2.2 million cast their votes for governor. But sometimes the difference is stark — as in 1993, when 2.5 million voted for governor, and 1994, when just 2 million voted for Senator.

The last midterm election when there was no Senate race on the ballot in New Jersey was 1998. That year, turnout in individual House races was generally down 10,000 to 20,000 votes over the previous midterm election (when a Senate race was also on the ballot).

There were only two exceptions to this trend — in Democratic Rep. Donald Payne’s district, where turnout was already so low that it didn’t have far to fall, and in former Republican Rep. Mike Pappas’ district, where turnout in 1994 and 1998 was flat.

But Pappas was a controversial Republican incumbent in a year when Congressional Republicans overplayed their impeachment hand, and Democratic voters had reason to turn out, both to dump him and to express their outrage at Republican attacks on President Bill Clinton.

The lack of a statewide contest to generate interest and drive turnout could help the prospects of former NFL star Jon Runyan, the likely Republican nominee against Adler.

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