Can Republicans win in Virginia and New Jersey?

Not so long ago, Republicans didn’t need to ask that question about either state, mostly because they owned Virginia and Democrats owned New Jersey.  Real Clear Politics detects a shift in both states now that may put the governor’s chair within reach of the GOP.  Could this signal the start of a rebound?

New polling suggests that New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine faces a difficult challenge for re-election this year. A Monmouth University poll released last week shows that just 34% of Garden State voters approve of the job Corzine is doing, compared to 51% who disapprove. Another recent survey shows that Republican Chris Christie, who as the state’s hard-charging U.S. attorney has pursued a number of high-profile corruption cases, is leading the Democrat 44% to 38%.

In Virginia, the only other state holding a gubernatorial election this year, Democrats face an uphill battle against former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell. A Rasmussen survey conducted on Feb. 4 had McDonnell leading each of his three potential rivals, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, former state Delegate Brian Moran and former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe. None is as well known statewide as McDonnell, who will watch from the sidelines until the Democratic primary on June 9.

Circumstances in both states could certainly change by November. But more than the strength of Republican candidates, there’s a unique historical pattern that should have Democrats concerned. Since 1989, the party that has controlled the White House has lost gubernatorial elections in each state.

That makes this both interesting bellwethers.  Will history continue to play itself out by dumping Democrats, and potentially reversing the momentum they have gained in Virginia?  Or will the after-effects of Hope and Change from November hinder Republicans in 2009?

In a way, the history plays against the GOP here.  We’d expect the Republicans to win both races as part of a pattern.  If they lose, Democrats could point to the anomaly and say, perhaps with some truth, that the electoral winds have truly shifted and that 2008 represented a realignment of the American electorate.  If Republicans win these races, they won’t be able to make the case that the elections repudiate Obama’s politics, at least not very substantially — not unless a few more elections go their way between now and 2010.