In two state off-year elections held on Tuesday, Democratic candidates lost (resoundingly in one case) to Republican challengers. Therein lies a cautionary tale — for Democrats and Republicans — in the year between now and the midterms next November.
In Virginia, by a double-digit margin, Republican moderate, former state attorney general Bob McDonnell thumped his challenger, Democratic state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, a candidate who waged a lackluster, uninspiring campaign, and whose loss is a sobering counter to last year’s defection of the state to Democratic blue in the 2008 presidential election, and earlier votes that swept Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner to power.
“My promise to you as governor,” McDonnell said, “is to strengthen the free-enterprise system, to create more jobs and opportunity so that every Virginian can use their God-given talents to pursue the American dream and liberty here in this great commonwealth.”
And in New Jersey — reliably, automatically Democratic New Jersey — Jon Corzine, the current Democratic governor and former Goldman Sachs poobah, had his ass handed to him, defeated by Republican challenger Chris Christie, a candidate whose everyday-mensch mien dovetailed with the blue-collar sensibilities of the Garden State.
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As you might expect, the national Republican Party apparatus and its media mouthpieces are rhetorically dancing in the streets. To a man, they’ve automatically, if obliquely, made the Tuesday results a referendum on the Obama administration, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.
“America, through the voices of those in Virginia and New Jersey, had something to say,” said Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this morning.
"We're not crowing, we're just smiling," Steele said later in an interview on the CBS' "Early Show." "I think it's a bellwether for the party ... You look at where we were nine months ago."
The “Republican renaissance has begun,” Steele told Politico. “The message was sent yesterday. It's not about the change we need, it's about the change we want.”
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Hosannas like that overlook the results of an MSNBC exit poll on Tuesday. The poll found that 60 percent of New Jersey voters said President Obama was not a factor in who they voted for; a majority — 57 percent — said they personally approved of how Obama is conducting his administration.
Numbers like that soundly undercut any Republican notion that the New Jersey vote was any kind of a protest vote against Washington. “All politics is local,” the late and sorely missed House Speaker Tip O’Neill once observed. Tuesday’s vote proved that all over again.
And there’s evidence that Tuesday’s results in Virginia, at least, are less a demonstration of any fundamental political shift, and more an example of politics’ reliable tidal gravity.
Virginia has consistently (some might say perversely) cast ballots against the ruling party in off-year elections. “Since 1977, no party that has won the White House has gone on to capture Virginia's governorship the next year,” The Washington Post reported this morning. This pattern was expected to hold sway on Tuesday, and it did. The fact of Virginia’s historically proven tendency to vote against the party in power makes McDonnell’s win not quite the "bellwether" that Steele and the GOP leadership would have us believe.
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But still. There’s no doubt the Democrats have work to do. Political scholar and author Robert Creamer, writing a postmortem today in The Huffington Post, has a grasp of what’s required:
“Yesterday many of the independent voters that supported Obama in Virginia and New Jersey last year voted Republican. This trend may be slightly overstated since many Republican leaning voters who used to self-identify as Republican in exit polls are now self-identifying as independents. But there is little question that independent voters are very impatient. In 2008 Barack Obama sold them on change and hope. To continue to invest their hope with Democrats, swing voters are going to have to see evidence that change is happening.”
Creamer goes on to note the other factor for Democrats in the wake of Tuesday’s vote: a need to re-galvanize a base that’s no doubt gotten complacent after the 2008 victory (evidenced by the poor turnout Tuesday of black voters, young voters and other generally reliable Democrats).
“In Virginia and New Jersey, the Republicans turned out more strongly than expected and many, many Obama Democrats stayed home. There were some good Democratic and base mobilization get-out-the-vote programs in both states. Mechanics weren't the main problem. The problem was inspiration.
Inspiration was Barack Obama's not-so-secret weapon in 2008. Inspiration helped him persuade independent voters who wanted change, and mobilize base voters who wanted hope. Without an inspired base, Democrats cannot hold our own in 2010 -- it's that simple.”
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There may be more at stake for the Republicans than the Democrats in Tuesday’s results. The Republican Party has been lately caught up in the process of eating its young — purging itself of all but the most doctrinaire, reflexively obedient true believers. Moderates need not apply.
That willful self-isolationism cultivated by conservative rogue Sarah Palin, the Club for Growth, the Fox News wind machine and the high priest of prevarication, Rush Limbaugh, is dangerously at odds with what the successful McDonnell campaign proved on Tuesday: there is, or should be, a place for moderates in the Republican party.
It’s commonly understood that Deeds ran a poor campaign, and McDonnell’s deep-pocketed operation capitalized on that. But it’s important to look at what else McDonnell brought to the party. McDonnell ran a campaign that focused on taxes and the economy — things every Virginian could relate to — and smartly played down the cultural trip-wire issues that have come to define contemporary Republicanism.
Abortion rights, gay rights, racial and ethnic inclusion, immigration — all of these were largely subordinated by the McDonnell campaign, which focused on kitchen-table issues everyone could get their minds around.
McDonnell thus poses a problem for the Republicans. His campaign attracted many of the same people —independent voters, and those at least temporarily disenchanted with Team Obama — who are more politically moderate. And it’s these moderates, these voters who aren’t knee-jerk cultural-issue voters, people less likely to be swayed by extremist party-line argument, that the GOP will need to win a year from now (and again two years after that).
They’re the same moderates the GOP has been trying to chase out of the Republican tent for years. The Republicans are today celebrating a victory by the very kind of candidate the party leadership and its enablers are bound and determined to eliminate from the party’s ranks. That doesn’t augur well for any big GOP sweep next November.
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While the results of Tuesday’s vote at first blush might suggest something big happening, there’s really little real justification for gnashing of teeth by Democrats or bloviating by Republicans.
“Disquisitions on The Meaning of It All for President Obama or the 2009 results as a harbinger for Congress in 2010 have scant basis in reality,” The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus noted today.
Tuesday was not-so-super for the Democrats, and only slightly more so for the Republicans. A lot remains inconclusive, despite Tuesday’s results, and the handwriting large on the wall is writ with ink both red and blue.
Image credits: Michael Steele and Bob McDonnell: Getty Images. Tip O'Neill: Robert Vickery (public domain). Rush Limbaugh: Via Fox News.