Governors Races In N.J., Va., Examined

Much is at stake for Democrats and Republicans in governors races in New Jersey and Virginia. Polls are suggesting a significant drop in the expected black voter turnout, pivotal for Democrats in both states. The two races could set the stage for the 2010 midterm elections. Cynthia Tucker, of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, and David Brooks, of The New York Times, offer their insight.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And for more now on the off-year elections and what they tell us about the current political landscape, we turn to our political watchers to grab some insight. And this week, we're joined by David Brooks of the New York Times and Cynthia Tucker, columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, New York Times): Good to be here.

Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Columnist, Atlanta-Journal Constitution): Thank you.

NORRIS: So, beyond that seat in New Jersey and the governor's race in Virginia, what's at stake for both parties? Cynthia, I'm going to begin with you.

Ms. TUCKER: Well, what's at stake for both parties is the perception of the president, as someone just said. And a look at how voters are viewing the economy because that's what all the elections going on at the moment have in common. No matter whether the president campaigns a little or campaigns a lot, what is affecting every single incumbent at the moment, or even people running for an open seat as they are in Virginia, is voters' perceptions of the economy and voters are pretty sour on the economy. That makes it a dangerous time for any Democrat running, particularly if he's an incumbent.

NORRIS: So, a referendum on the president, the party and the handling of the economy. David, is this a test for brand Obama and also a test run for the GOP strategy and the message moving forward?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, it is for Obama and I like to see him dropping his G's and doing that folksy attitude. He has two different tones, one here in Washington and his tone that he's adopting now takes me back to Iowa - makes me teary-eyed and nostalgic…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: …for it. You know, what he did in - when he ran for president - was built sort of a big center-left agenda. I mean, the Democrats made huge inroads into red America, in North Carolina and places like Virginia. And that was very impressive, and the question would be, would they keep it? And I think the evidence so far, especially, in the governor's race in Virginia and other places, is no. They're doing fine among blue states, that is Obama is still very popular, personally still popular. But among those conservative areas that had gone Democratic, they seem to have lost a lot of those areas, and hence as people look forward to the next elections, they're expecting them to lose lot of House seats in those near south areas that they picked up.

NORRIS: Lost ground - but there is also - at least the polling suggests - that they're also losing some of the black support that Obama enjoyed, a significant drop in the expected black turnout in both New Jersey and Virginia.

Ms. TUCKER: Obama hasn't lost black support. The Democratic Party hasn't lost black support. The problem is that there were a lot of very energized voters who turned out last November for the prospect of a historic election, electing the first African-American as president of the United States.

NORRIS: Will they become habitual voters?

Ms. TUCKER: Unfortunately, it doesn't appear so that is a huge problem for Creigh Deeds in Virginia. In fact, that is one of his biggest problems. He's not a great candidate. He's not that lively on the stump and he hasn't connected with black voters very well at all. He's trying to run them - to round them up in the final days. It may be too little, too late. But he needs a huge black turnout in Virginia if he's going to eke out a win and it's unlikely that he's going to get that.

NORRIS: We're talking here in Washington - and I'm interested in what this means in terms of the partisan battles that we see here in this city over key issues, the biggest one, of course, is health care. What does this mean for the president's effort to try to build some consensus, particularly, you know, reaching across the aisle to members of the other party or trying to broker some sort of compromise that'll satisfy liberals if he appears to be losing his political mojo?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, there are two things happening. One, in midterm elections seniors vote and seniors have become extremely important. The Obama administration, essentially, tried to bribe them with a $13 billion bribe last week. We'll see if that works out. I kind of doubt it. The second issue and I think this also showed up this week in Congress, the one issue that is really left to the fore - in the way I've never seen before in my life - is deficits. It used to be there were couple of green eyeshade people who cared about deficits - Pete Peterson and the Concord Coalition. But now wherever you go, Democrats and Republicans, that is just a huge issue whether you like Obama or don't like Obama. And that issue, in a Ross Perot sort of way, is rising to the top in race after race and in Congress.

Ms. TUCKER: It's rising to the top, though, because it's interestingly enough, ironically enough, being pushed very hard by Republicans. And that's not to say that there aren't people who genuinely care about deficits. There are many people who do. The simple fact of the matter is huge deficits increased under George W. Bush. And when the Republicans had control of the White House and both parts of Congress, they did nothing. In fact, they passed another huge entitlement for seniors which was the Medicare prescription drug bill.

Now, suddenly Republicans have rediscovered the problem with the deficit. I also think that that plays into people's general fears about the economy. I don't think the American - average American stays up late at night thinking about a huge federal deficit. But they do understand their own credit card debt. They do understand their struggling to pay the mortgage and so the two issues have connected. So the average American is probably paying a little more attention today because households are struggling with debt.

NORRIS: We don't have a lot of time left, but I just want to ask you a what-if question. Elections are one measure of a president and party. Another measure is the polls. And you - we'll hear the White House say they dismiss the polls. I'll leave it you to both of you to decide whether or not that is true. But if the president's approval ratings fall below 50 percent, what does that mean -just quickly, very quickly - about his ability to build any kind of consensus on health care? Quickly, Cynthia.

Ms. TUCKER: It's going to be very tough for him if he seen to be losing his mojo, as you put it.

NORRIS: David?

Mr. BROOKS: It's the way we keep score here. If they say they're ignoring the polls, they're lying. If your approvals go down, your prestige goes down. You lose friends. They don't want to go have lunch with you.

NORRIS: Thank you very much. That's David Brooks of the New York Times and Cynthia Tucker. She's a columnist for the Atlantic Journal-Constitution. Thanks so much.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

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