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First thoughts: The GOP's two paths

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** The GOP's two paths: Republicans are set to learn two very contradictory lessons from their likely victories tomorrow in Virginia and NY-23. In Virginia's gubernatorial race, as we've written before, Bob McDonnell (R) has hugged the middle, portraying himself as a bipartisan legislator and attorney general who has racked up significant endorsements from Democrats. He also has owned the issues of the economy and taxes. But in the NY-23 special congressional election, the lesson has been to embrace the right -- even if it means backing a third-party candidate (Doug Hoffman) over its party's more moderate nominee (Dede Scozzafava), who suspended her campaign on Saturday and is now backing the Democrat in the race (Bill Owens). Those events over the weekend turned a three-way congressional race that the Dems could win -- by splitting the GOP vote -- into a likely Republican victory. However, First Read has learned that Scozzafava is now taping robo-calls for Owens. By the way, it's worth remembering that McDonnell cut a deal with Virginia GOP Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling to avoid a primary. Could McDonnell have run as a centrist in the general had he run in a primary in the spring?

*** The ideological civil war in 2010: So which path does the Republican Party take as we head into 2010? As of right now, it looks like the NY-23 one (even though McDonnell is about to do something that Jerry Kilgore, George Allen, Jim Gilmore, and John McCain didn't do this century: win in the battleground state of Virginia). On Saturday, Marco Rubio, who's taking on the more moderate Charlie Crist in next year's Florida Senate primary, delivered this message to conservatives on National Review Online: The "developments in New York's 23rd Congressional District should send an encouraging message to conservatives everywhere. It is not only right and necessary to stand up for our principles; it is also an appealing strategy to Americans yearning for less government and more fiscal restraint in Washington." The conservative-vs.-moderate battle also will play out next year in Texas (where Kay Bailey Hutchison is taking on Rick Perry) and in Utah (where Sen. Bob Bennett is receiving a challenge from the right). And don't forget that this divide already forced Sen. Arlen Specter switch parties earlier this year.

*** NY-23 and 2012: Hoffman's likely victory is either the first anecdote political analysts will use to explain how the GOP built itself back up as a grassroots party to nominate (insert semi-unknown Republican here) and defeat Obama in 2012. Or it will become what Democrats see as an ideological fight that turned off the political middle and set the stage for Obama to win re-election, thanks to a Republican Party that couldn't appeal to independents. That was the argument David Plouffe made on "Meet the Press" yesterday. "Sarah Palin, the other Republican candidates who are likely to run, the Limbaughs and Becks of the world are basically hanging a 'moderates need not apply' sign outside the Republican National Committee headquarters," he said. "And for a party that has historic lows right now … it's a ... curious strategy to kind of repair this damage."

*** Charlie Crist, you're next: Indeed, if Hoffman wins in NY-23 tomorrow, Charlie Crist will most definitely be the right's next target in this ideological civil war. And he's already hurting. A new Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll over the weekend found that only 42% think that Crist is doing a good or excellent job as governor -- his worst rating in his 34 months in office. But the biggest worry for him? "Even most fellow Republicans don't like the job he's doing. That 51 percent of them rate Crist's performance as fair or poor is particularly ominous for someone facing an aggressive U.S. Senate primary challenge from former state House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami." It's snowballing for Crist. As he tries to appeal to the GOP base, that base is abandoning him. Meanwhile, Dems and indies won't bail him out now; they are becoming more partisan, too. This is all turning into a potential political nightmare for Crist. Here's some irony for you: Had Crist decided to seek a second term, he'd probably cruise to re-election (as top Dem Alex Sink wouldn't be running). Now, trying to jump to the Senate after just one term as governor (nearly half of which he's spending as a political candidate) will be its own liability.

*** What if Corzine Loses? With all the focus on NY-23 and Virginia, however, don't forget about New Jersey's gubernatorial contest, which will probably be the closest race Tuesday night. In fact, President Obama made his third campaign swing for Jon Corzine (D) yesterday. While Corzine has trailed for most of the year and while his approval numbers remain stuck in the 30s and 40s, almost everything has gone right for him in the final two months: 1) Chris Christie's campaign has floundered, 2) Chris Daggett's independent candidacy gives Corzine a path to victory without winning 50% of the vote, and 3) Obama's recent events for Corzine and the Democratic Party's ground game in Jersey might be what Democrats need to turn a deadlocked race into a Dem win. But what happens if Corzine loses? How will you be able to explain it? (The final Quinnipiac poll shows movement for Christie, with him up by two (42%-40%) after trailing by five last week.)

*** Rationalizing New Jersey: Well, the chief reason will have been Corzine's unpopularity; indeed having EVERYTHING going his way these past two months has been the only way he might win tomorrow. But you also can't dismiss concerns about the Democratic base (that for the first time in quite a while, the Dem base in New Jersey wouldn't have been able to push the Democrat across the finish line), or the fact that incumbents across the country better be worried about their prospects next year (Chris Dodd, Harry Reid, Ted Strickland, Bill Ritter, and Chet Culver, we're looking at you). In addition, on CNBC this morning, Christie said Obama will have no impact on the race, and he took pains not to criticize the president. So Christie's spin on Obama and the White House's spin on Obama are probably in sync! By the way, fair or not, Democrats better be ready to parry a new GOP talking point that none of the ACTUAL Democratic nominees running in NJ, VA, NY-23, and NYC mayor may break 45% on Tuesday. And in every single one of those states/districts/cities, Obama nabbed well over 50% in 2008.

*** Dede wasn't the only one who quit a race this past weekend: Turning from the 2009 horse races to foreign policy, the big news in Afghanistan is that Abdullah Abdullah withdrew from his runoff against Karzai, the runoff was canceled, and Karzai was declared the winner. So what does this mean for the Obama administration as it weighs sending more troops into Afghanistan? It's unclear at this point. After his meeting with his Joint Chiefs last Friday, Obama asked them to come back to the White House (possibly as early as this week) to present him with more options. The president is not happy with the choices that he has in front of him, including Gen. Stanley McCrystal's request for approximately 40,000 more troops. While nothing has been ruled out, the fact that Obama is asking for more options than what was already on the table, including the 40,000 troop request, is a strong sign that whatever number the president approves, it will likely be less than the 40,000 number. As for timing, it's also looking less likely the president will make a decision -- let alone announce a decision -- before he leaves for Asia on Nov. 11, meaning the election decision in Afghanistan may have less impact on timing than many thought.

*** McChrystal and Pat Tillman: Speaking of McChrystal and Afghanistan… On "Meet" yesterday, author Jon Krakauer discussed his new book on Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan, noting that McChrystal had approved paperwork for Tillman's Silver Star, despite having evidence Tillman had died due to friendly fire. "After Tillman died, the most important thing to know is that within--instantly, within 24 hours certainly, everybody on the ground, everyone intimately involved knew it was friendly fire," Krakauer said. "There's never any doubt it was friendly fire.  McChrystal was told within 24 hours it was friendly fire. Also, immediately they started this paperwork to give Tillman a Silver Star. And the Silver Star ended up being at the center of the cover-up."

*** Geithner on taxes: Also on "Meet" yesterday, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner didn't rule out the Obama administration having to raise taxes to shore up the nation's debt, and he struggled mightily NOT to actually admit it. "I just want to say this very clearly. [Obama] was committed in the campaign to make--he said in the campaign and he is committed to make sure we do this in a way that is not going to add to the burden on people making less than $250,000 a year. Now, it's going to be hard to do that, but he's committed to doing that and we can do that… We're going to have to do it in a way that's going to help to meet that test, meet that commitment, the commitment he made, to do it in a way that's fair to Americans and make sure we do it in a way that's going to allow--provide for growth and recovery going forward. But we can do this. You know, this is not beyond our capacity as a country to do." Has "hard choices" become code for "tax hikes"?

*** Fast facts for tomorrow: One day out until tomorrow's NJ/VA/NY-23 contests, here are some fast facts you might want handy to sound smart around water cooler, at your election-night party, or while blogging/tweeting tomorrow night: Since 1977 (for eight-straight times), the party controlling the White House has always lost Virginia's gubernatorial contest… Since 1989 (five-straight times), the party controlling the White House has always lost New Jersey's gubernatorial race… Republicans have lost the last four major contests in VA (the '05 Gov race, the '06 and '08 Senate races, and in last year's presidential)… And even if Chris Christie wins in NJ, he'll likely keep this GOP alive: No Republican in a statewide race in NJ has received 50% since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

*** More 2009 trivia: The Deeds-McDonnell race in VA is a rematch from 2005, when McDonnell bested Deeds by just 360 votes in their race for state attorney general (something tells us the margin will be a bit bigger tomorrow night)… Dems hold more than a 700,000-voter-registration advantage in NJ, but almost half of all state voters (46%) are registered as unaffiliated… Corzine and Mike Bloomberg have already spent a combined $371 million on their political races since 2000… A Democrat has not controlled the NY-23 congressional district since the 19th century… If Republicans lose NY-23, they will control just two of the states 29 congressional districts; in 2006, they controlled nine, including seven Upstate.

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 1 day
Countdown to MA Special Primary: 36 days
Countdown to MA Special Election: 78 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 365 days

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