A Long Post About Last Night’s Election Results

November 4, 2009

Let’s start with the obvious: In the two high profile races last night, the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections, the Democrats got spanked. There isn’t a committed Democrat in America this morning who isn’t a bit concerned about those losses. And with good reason. In both votes, independents broke decidedly for the Republican candidates, reversing the trend that had swept Democrats back into power in 2006 and 2008. In both states, young voters and minority voters — key elements of Barack Obama’s winning coalition in 2008 — stayed home, voting in small numbers compared with other demographic groups. In Virginia, a state that has been shifting toward the Democratic column for the past twenty years, the Republican, Bob McDonnell won in a landslide, and carried Republicans to victories in the lieutenant governor and attorney general races as well. In New Jersey, a solidly blue state that voted overwhelming for Obama last year, Chris Christie beat the incumbent, Jon Corzine by a small but significant margin. None of this is good for Democrats. It seems that reports of the death of the Republican party were somewhat exaggerated.

That said, the night was not an unalloyed success for the GOP or an unmitigated disaster for the Democrats. First of all, let’s keep a few things in mind about these gubernatorial races.

1) Barack Obama’s approval ratings in both states are still strong — over 50% in Virginia and over 55% in New Jersey. Large majorities of voters in both electorates said that Obama was not a factor in how they voted last night. These were not referenda on the President or his agenda, despite what some on the right might wish to believe. These races turned mostly on local issues and continued concern about the economy. The latter obviously has some connection to the President. People want the recovery to come faster; they’re concerned about continued job losses. But these races were not about health care or cap and trade or even Afghanistan.

2) Foundational poll numbers remain fairly good for Democrats. Obama’s national job approval is in the low fifties (higher than that if you take out the outlying Rasmussen poll). Measures of public optimism and people’s satisfaction with their lives are trending in positive directions even though they remain decidedly negative. And party identification numbers show that the Republican party remains deeply unpopular. Many of those independents who voted for McDonnell and Christie were actually disaffected Republicans who had stopped identifying themselves as members of the GOP, but came back to the fold for this election.

3) This one might be the most important. Creigh Deeds, the Democrat running for governor of Virginia, was a terrible candidate. New Jersey’s chief executive, Jon Corzine, was a terrible governor. The Democrats would have lost these races regardless of who was President and what was going on elsewhere in the country. It’s hard to win when your candidates are as weak as these two.

Even more to the point, while Democrats lost these two high profile races, they won two others that were also quite important. One was a House race in California’s open 10th District. Ellen Tauscher, the incumbent Democrat, is now Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security in the Obama Administration, and Republicans had hoped that their candidate for the seat, David Harmer, might pull off an upset and beat Democrat John Garamendi. He didn’t. He didn’t even come close, losing by slightly more than ten percentage points.

The other important race last night — perhaps the most intriguing of all — was the special election to fill another open House seat vacated by an Obama appointee. This one was in New York’s rural 23rd District at the northern edge of the state. The incumbent, John McHugh, was tapped by Obama to become Secretary of the Army, but unlike Tauscher, McHugh was a Republican, a very popular one. He won reelection in 2008 with 65% of the vote, while Obama carried his district by only one percent. The Republican nominee in the race was Dede Scozzafava, a fairly typical northeastern moderate Republican who leans to the progressive side of most social issues and supported the Obama Administration’s economic stimulus plan. She was up against Bill Owens, a Democrat, and seemed likely to win, since the district has sent Republicans to the House of Representatives in every election for the past 150 years. Yes, you read that right: This has been a Republican district since the administration of Ulysses Grant.

But a cadre of high-profile GOP conservatives, led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, current loudmouth Rush Limbaugh, and current wack-job/cry-baby Glenn Beck, decided that Scozzafava wasn’t a true conservative. They recruited a third candidate, Doug Hoffman, had him nominated on the Conservative Party line, and made him the darling of the so-called Tea Party movement, despite the fact that he was not a resident of the district and knew nothing about issues of concern to its voters. Hoffman surged in the polls, and soon took the lead in the three-way race. For a while it seemed that right-wing efforts to purge the GOP of moderates was about to score another success. But over the weekend, Scozzafava dropped out of the race, and in a bold and courageous move, threw her support behind Owens, the Democrat. Last night, Owens won the seat, increasing the Democratic majority in the House and dealing a blow to the efforts of Palin and company to recast the GOP in their own narrow image.

The significance of this race can’t be overstated. The internecine warfare within the Republican party has been ongoing for several years. Already it has driven away moderate Republicans like Jim Jeffords, Arlen Specter, and Chuck Hagel. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine might well be next. Palin has vowed to continue her efforts to make the GOP more like her. Already, right-wing Republicans have targeted Charlie Crist, Florida’s centrist Republican governor, who is running for the U.S. Senate next year. If Crist is the nominee, the Republicans will probably hold on to the seat. But Palin and her pals don’t seem to care. They would rather nominate a “true” Republican and lose than allow ideological diversity in “their” party. And as a Democrat, all I can say is “Be my guest.”

The lessons of last night’s elections remain cloudy today. Yes, the victories in New Jersey and Virginia bode well for the GOP. It may be that the Democratic swing is over, and that President Obama’s party will lose a large number of seats in next year’s midterm elections. But it’s also possible that the right-wing purge that cost the Republicans the New York 23rd will continue, dooming their hopes in Florida, making them vulnerable in other districts and states, and undermining whatever momentum they would like to get from last night’s results. They could be on the verge of becoming a viable national party again. Or, if they keep on turning to the Doug Hoffmans of the world, they could cement their status as a regional party that can win only in the South and pockets of the Mountain West and Midwest. Time will tell.

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