What to Look for Tuesday

Posted October 31, 2007 at 6:22pm

With most of the country already looking ahead to Election Day 2008, it might be easy to forget that voters in a few states are going to the polls just five days from now.

And while Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia aren’t typical bellwethers, some important insight into next year’s national races might be found in the various legislative and statewide elections set to take place in those states on Tuesday:

• In New Jersey, Democrats might get some early insight into the vulnerability of Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R), whom they would love to knock off in 2008.

• In Virginia, a flip in control of the state Senate could be an added boost to the Senate candidacy of former Gov. Mark Warner (D).

• In Kentucky, Democrats are hoping to ride the momentum of their anticipated victory in the gubernatorial race to target Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) next year.

• In Mississippi, candidates in the 2008 open-seat race to replace Rep. Chip Pickering (R) will be touting their ties to Gov. Haley Barbour (R), who is expected to rack up a landslide on Tuesday.

“We do look at state elections as indications of where things may be headed in certain districts,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) told reporters Wednesday.

No Garden Party for LoBiondo?

In the Garden State, two tough state Senate races are taking place within LoBiondo’s district next week.

In the 1st Senate district, which includes Cape May County and some surrounding areas, state Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew (D) is taking on incumbent state Sen. Nicholas Asselta (R). National Democrats hope they can talk Van Drew into challenging LoBiondo in 2008. The site PoliticsNJ.com currently has the race listed as leaning Democratic, but still one of the five closest state Senate races of the cycle.

Meanwhile, in the 2nd district, which includes Atlantic County, state Sen. Sonny McCullough (R) is being challenged by Assemblyman and former Atlantic City Mayor Jim Whelan (D). That race is the only Senate race listed as a pure tossup by PoliticsNJ.com.

Brad Lawrence, a Democratic consultant in New Jersey, said victories for both Whelan and Van Drew would be “a big deal” for LoBiondo’s re-election chances.

LoBiondo is a low-key Republican who is a fiscal conservative but moderate on labor and environmental issues. Although he has done well in past cycles, never winning an election with less than 60 percent of the vote, he represents a district that President Bush won by fewer than 2,500 votes in 2004.

Another race to keep an eye on in New Jersey is the 29th district state Senate race. In that race Assemblyman William Payne, the brother of Rep. Donald Payne (D), is running as an independent candidate against Teresa Ruiz, the Democratic nominee, as well as a Republican and several other independent candidates. The interesting aspect of this race is not whether the Newark-based 10th Congressional district could be vulnerable to a Republican in 2008 but whether Donald Payne could be vulnerable to a Democratic primary challenger.

A key supporter of Ruiz is Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who, since winning his 2006 City Hall race, has increasingly been throwing his support to candidates in state and local races who are challenging candidates backed by Donald Payne and the entrenched local Democratic machine. Earlier this year, Booker publicly declined to commit to supporting the Congressman for re-election in 2008 and publically supported a state Assembly candidate in a primary battle that saw the defeat of Donald Payne’s nephew.

William Payne is considered a long shot for the Senate seat, but a resounding defeat of Payne’s brother could give the Booker machine more confidence for a possible shot at the Congressman.

Virginia: Warner and Warnings

In Virginia, where a Senate seat already is up for grabs in 2008 and more than one House race could move into the competitive column, both parties will be watching the outcome of the state legislative elections and particularly the results of the narrowly split state Senate.

After Democratic wins in the two most recent gubernatorial races as well as last year’s Senate race, state Democrats believe the political pendulum is swinging away from the GOP. Old Dominion Democratic operatives say that gaining control of the state Senate — which the GOP currently controls by six seats — or even picking off several key state Senate seats in the more conservative southern and central parts of the state, would give Democrats reason to claim they have the wind at their backs heading into 2008.

“I think the story [from next week’s election] is going to be did the Republican party stem the tide and actually pick something up? Or did Democrats continue to look like they are carving out … a state that looked awfully damn red to me in 2001,” said Steve Jarding, a longtime Virginia Democratic operative who has helped run campaigns for Warner, Gov. Tim Kaine and Sen. Jim Webb.

But Republicans say the bar for Democrats to claim momentum in Virginia is a little higher than that.

“Democrats are going to pick up seats in Virginia [in the 2007 elections], it’s a question of how many,” Republican pollster Glen Bolger said. “And if they don’t sweep the state House and state Senate given their financial advantage, I think that shows that smart Republican campaigns can survive in a tough year.”

One Republican source said GOP losses in Virginia next week would more likely signal party frustration over local issues but wouldn’t have any repercussions on the re-election campaigns of Reps. Tom Davis, Frank Wolf and Thelma Drake.

“Republicans in the state Senate of Virginia may need to lose the state Senate in order for them to wake up and smell the coffee because they are the ones who have been pushing tax increases. They are the ones that rammed them through and supported them for Warner and Kaine,” the source said.

A particularly interesting race will be that of Davis’ wife, state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R), who is in the middle of a tough re-election battle for her Fairfax County seat against Chap Petersen, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 2005. Davis has been deeply involved in his wife’s re-election bid and some Virginia GOP insiders speculate that the outcome of his wife’s race could impact the Congressman’s decision on whether or not to seek another term in 2008.

But even if Devolites Davis wins, does that mean Republicans have stemmed the Democratic tide?

“No. It might just mean that in that particular case a challenger was outspent,” Jarding said. “But that’s why you add them all up. I wouldn’t just say, ‘lets key in on one race,’ because there may have been extenuating circumstances in one race. But let’s add it up and see where we are. If on Tuesday Democrats are continuing to pick up seats, or even pick up one of the houses of legislature, you’d look at that and say, ‘no one saw that coming a few years ago.’”

Kentucky: Does Fletcher=McConnell?

Looking west to the Bluegrass state, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said Wednesday that he is particularly interested in the next week’s elections — and particularly the re-election chances of embattled Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) — as he gauges McConnell’s vulnerability.

“Sen. McConnell’s numbers are not very good and we are hopeful of having a Democratic governor and then we’ll figure out how to get a Democratic Senator” in 2008, Schumer said.

Jim Cauley, campaign manager for Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear (D), who is considered the frontrunner in the gubernatorial race, said that if Beshear has a strong showing, or even manages to win, in Northern and Western Kentucky, “that’s a bad sign for Republicans [in 2008]. Because Western Kentucky is Dixiecrat, that’s those Democrat who vote for McConnell and vote for [Sen. Jim ] Bunning [R]. If we win Northern Kentucky and western Kentucky those are your values voters right there and it will say a lot about how the Republicans will do next year.”

But with Fletcher tainted by scandal and expected to lose his re-election bid, Republican vulnerability in Kentucky might be better judged by looking at downballot races to determine how the Republican brand has been affected in the Bluegrass State.

One race of particular interest is the re-election campaign of Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R).

Widely considered to be a rising star in the Kentucky Republican Party, Grayson has far outspent his relatively unknown challenger, school teacher Bruce Hendrickson (D), and yet the race is still considered competitive.

“Elections show time and time again that those in a scandal have a very difficult time winning re-election,” Bolger said. “The question is whether it’s contagious to other members of the party or whether it’s seen as just the office holder’s problem.”

But Bolger said that concern likely will have little continuing effect a year from now in Kentucky, as Fletcher will not be on the ballot and likely will be considered “old news.”

Mississippi: Haley to the Chief

In Mississippi, a well-liked governor, Barbour, could have a much different impact on races in his state next week.

The question in the Magnolia State is not whether Barbour will win re-election, but rather, how long are his coattails?

Some state Republicans are talking about the possibility of winning as many as seven out of eight statewide elections next week and a particularly strong showing by the GOP in Mississippi not only bolsters the state party but would be welcome news for a national party that hasn’t had much good news since the 2006 elections.

“Across the country the mood and the momentum has been on the Democrats’ side for a while,” said John Keast, a D.C. lobbyist and longtime Mississippi Republican operative. “If Mississippi can be one of the states that stanches that momentum than it works in the favor or Republicans running next year.”

National Republicans already have tried to claim some momentum from the recent victory of Rep. Bobby Jindal (R) in Louisiana’s gubernatorial race (Louisiana will hold it’s runoff races on Nov. 17) and the closer-than-expected loss by the Republican candidate in Massachusetts’ open-seat special election last month. But at least for now, party officials appear to be a bit cautious about drawing more conclusions from next week’s impending elections.

“The [National Republican Congressional Committee] will certainly look at and dissect all election results leading up to 2008 as we continue to formulate our plan to retake the majority in the House,” NRCC spokeswoman Julie Shutley said. “But we believe the sheer frustration with the Democrats’ inability to govern along with the disgust voters have towards the Democrats’ broken campaign promises won’t be fully reflected at the state and local level, where different issues are at play and turnout will look very different.”