Republican Mark Sanford’s victory Tuesday in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District tells us only one thing about the 2014 midterm elections—that Democrats still need to capture 17 seats to win back the House majority they lost in 2010. Nothing more, nothing less.
Had Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch won the special election, all it would have demonstrated was that even in such an overwhelmingly Republican district (Mitt Romney carried it by 18 points last year, John McCain by 13 points in 2008), a scandal-ridden, politically disfigured Republican could still lose. Because Sanford ended up winning, all it showed was that district voters prefer to hold their noses and vote for a deeply flawed Republican than to vote for a Democrat. It should be noted that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi figured prominently in Sanford’s last round of advertising; the former governor warned that a vote for Colbert Busch was a vote to make Pelosi House speaker again.
There have been times when a special congressional election told us something about the national political environment, but those instances are few and far between. More often, the districts bear little resemblance to the country as a whole, or the circumstances of a race are so extenuating that any suggestion of deeper meaning is a stretch.
The outcome of New Jersey’s gubernatorial election in November is similarly unlikely to have great import. Although the Garden State has a distinctive blue political coloring, GOP incumbent Chris Christie most likely will make mincemeat of the sacrificial lamb Democrats choose to oppose him.
Arguably, this fall’s Virginia gubernatorial race will be a better test. Historically a conservative and Republican state, Virginia—along, to a lesser extent, with its southern neighbor, North Carolina—has become more like the Mid-Atlantic states to its north in recent years. Other Southern states, such as Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee, largely retain their Dixie voting patterns. Each of those states has a bedrock Democratic vote made up chiefly of minority voters, along with indigenous white Democratic voters. But North Carolina and, even more so, Virginia have seen an influx of non-Southerners, who vote more like the country as a whole than like the Old South.
Notably absent from the above analysis is Georgia. This Dixie state has more Northern transplants than the other Southern states but fewer than Virginia and North Carolina, so it hasn’t made the turn yet.
The Virginia governor’s race should be a more interesting test than the South Carolina special election. Both parties have potentially problematic nominees. Republican state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli brings to the race a reputation as a hard-charging, take-no-prisoners conservative, more in tune with the old Dixie Virginia than the new Mid-Atlantic Virginia. GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell started his gubernatorial bid four years ago with a reputation as a social conservative, but he is nowhere near as conservative as Cuccinelli; the latter will have considerably more distance to cover than McDonnell did in 2009.
Democrats are fielding Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who is best known for being one of President Clinton’s closest friends—which is an asset in some parts of the state but not so much in others. Although former Gov. Tim Kaine went on to become DNC chairman before edging out former Sen. George Allen in their Senate race last year, he was known in the state as a Virginian, rising through the ranks in state politics. McAuliffe comes via national politics, although his ads are quick to point out that he and his family moved to the state more than two decades ago.
A convincing argument can be made that each man will have difficulty reaching beyond his party’s base. Indeed, some wags argue that Cuccinelli is the only Republican whom McAuliffe could beat and that McAuliffe is the only Democrat whom Cuccinelli can defeat. On paper, this starts out as a pretty fair fight.
Two somewhat contradictory polls are out at the moment. A recently released NBC News/Marist survey shows McAuliffe and Cuccinelli locked in a close contest, with McAuliffe leading by 2 points among registered voters and Cuccinelli by 3 points among likely voters. A Washington Post poll put Cuccinelli ahead by 5 points among all voters and 10 points among likely voters. The Republican has considerably higher name recognition starting out than McAuliffe does, giving McAuliffe some room for improvement as his name ID increases. African-Americans are disproportionately undecided, but Cuccinelli stands little chance of getting their support. Suffice it to say, this is a very close race.
Cuccinelli has begun trying to reframe his image, with ads pointing out that he worked the midnight shift on occasion at a homeless shelter and took other actions that don’t fit into the rigidly conservative persona he has projected in his political career. McDonnell, using some of the same advisers that Cuccinelli now employs, did this four years ago with great success. Indeed, some of McDonnell’s first television ads featured him talking up the importance of creating green jobs; others were clearly aimed at softening his image, particularly among female voters.
So Virginia has a race that might be illuminating. It is a swing state where moderate and independent voters will have to choose sides; the national political environment may well be a factor in driving them one way or the other. Indeed, the swoon of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds four years ago coincided remarkably closely with the drop in President Obama’s numbers, both in the state and nationally. The race hinted at what was to come the next year when Republicans scored near-biblical gains in the House and a six-seat gain in the Senate.
So although the South Carolina special election had some entertainment value, if you want to look for a potential clue about 2014, you’ll have better luck watching Virginia.
CORRECTION: The print version of this column misstated NBC News/Marist poll data. The survey showed Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, not Terry McAuliffe, leading by 3 points among likely voters.