By MARSHA MERCER
Many political analysts see the races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey as a referendum on President Obama and his policies.
Maybe so, but the Nov. 3 elections are also a test of old-fashioned negative campaigning. Obama won both states last year on a message of hope, but the gubernatorial campaigns in the Old Dominion and Garden State have been mud-fests.
In New Jersey, Republican challenger Chris Christie held a double-digit lead in the polls over incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine until Corzine let loose an intensely negative ad campaign.
One Corzine TV ad mocks Christie for being obese. A narrator says, “Christie threw his weight around as U.S. attorney and got off easy.” Video footage shows the heavily built Christie getting out of an SUV in slow motion.
“Corzine Points a Spotlight at his Rival’s Waistline,” said a headline in The New York Times. Writing in Newsweek’s The Gaggle blog, Holly Bailey asked the pertinent (or impertinent) question: “Is Christie too fat to be the next governor of New Jersey?”
Corzine’s campaign denied it was targeting Christie’s appearance – wink, wink.
The contest between Corzine, who literally has been running in races most weekends, and Christie is now a dead heat, with independent Chris Daggett far behind. Daggett recently won the endorsement of the state’s largest newspaper. Svelte Obama will be campaigning with Corzine Wednesday.
In Virginia, Democrat Creigh Deeds also gone negative, hammering for weeks on a graduate thesis that Republican Robert F. “Bob” McDonnell wrote 20 years ago. While studying at the university founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, McDonnell criticized working women as detrimental to the family, disparaged gays and said religion should influence public policy.
While it’s certainly fair for Deeds to hold his opponent accountable for his written views, Deeds seemed to have little else in his campaign playbook. Many Democrats have urged him to adopt a more positive message and talk more about where he’ll lead the state.
Deeds, though, keeps hitting McDonnell. One TV ad questions whether McDonnell, who grew up in Alexandria, has abandoned his roots.
"Bob McDonnell says he's from Fairfax County," the voiceover says, "But that was before he attended Pat Robertson's law school."
McDonnell’s lead has shrunk, but he’s still ahead in the polls. He responded effectively with sunny ads, including one that features his daughter who led a Army platoon in Iraq. Another ad shows prominent women praising McDonnell.
Perhaps the lowest moment in Virginia came when a supporter of McDonnell made fun of Deeds’s speech impediment. During a campaign event, Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, mocked Deeds’s stutter. A video of her comments taken by a Deeds campaign worker widely circulated on the Internet for weeks before Johnson apologized, sort of.
“Two weeks ago I made reference to Creigh Deeds’s inability to clearly communicate effective solutions to the serious problems facing Virginia,” Johnson said in a statement. “I shouldn’t have done it in the manner in which I did and for that I apologize for any offense he, or others, may have taken.”
There’s always the potential of a backlash in negative campaigning. Christie has talked a little about his struggle with his weight, and Deeds has referred indirectly to his halting speech. Twice during a televised debate Monday, Deeds said he’s not an eloquent speaker but does speak his mind. He accused McDonnell of being a smooth talker.
Personal attacks remind voters it’s politics as usual at a time when serious economic and social problems demand cooperation. The new voters who flocked to Obama last year were responding to his message that politics could be different. Obama may not have delivered on many of his promises yet, but he hasn’t given up. The grimy gubernatorial battles in Virginia and New Jersey remind voters how little politicians have changed even as the problems facing the country grow worse.
Obama campaigned with Deeds in August, and he’s likely to campaign with him again before Election Day. Just a year ago, Obama became the first Democrat to carry the presidential vote in Virginia since LBJ in 1964. He won by sharing his bright vision, not by slinging mud.
© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.