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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.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 4th, 2009 07:47 pm (UTC)
One lesson I didn't see is that while McDonnell does have strong conservative street-cred, he ran claiming to be a moderate, which is a tactic that my own congressman has tended to use.

The question then is, at what point to independent voters realize that they bought a pig in a poke.
Nov. 4th, 2009 08:08 pm (UTC)
Good question. There's flip side though (although it carries less weight in the commonwealth, since governors are term limited): Voters will vote out someone who runs as one thing and becomes another upon taking office. It happened to Corzine, who ran as a business expert and turned out to be basically incompetent. If McDonnell returns to his far-right roots, the Dems will reclaim the Governor's Mansion in four years.
Nov. 4th, 2009 07:49 pm (UTC)
The Dems winning the 23rd was a knife at the throat of the GOP, and much more telling than two gubernatorial candidates who all but gave away the game in their respective states. But I hope people like Palin and Limbaugh and the other hate-screamers on the right continue to "purify" their party of moderates. They are destroying what's left of the GOP and I for one couldn't be happier.

Nevertheless, this should also go down as a teachable moment for Democrats in Washinton: "Don't take liberal and progressive support for granted. If you don't get anything done we will stay at home in '10 and '12. We're not lemmings like the conservatives. We voted for change. You'd better deliver it or we won't come out."

Nothing else seems to put fear into these Democravens and stiffen their spine. Maybe last night will.
Nov. 4th, 2009 08:10 pm (UTC)
I agree that the 23rd was the Race of the Night, and I think it will prolong the GOP civil war. As for the gutless Dems, hopefully they'll take the correct message from this -- we have to act, we have to lead, we have to be true to our party's heritage -- rather than using it as an excuse to continue being cowards.
Nov. 4th, 2009 08:31 pm (UTC)
Oops, I forgot to add it was cool that we also won CA-10. So we lost some big local races but we did VERY well in the national stuff, and this is symptomatic of the "purifying" process that is going on right now in the GOP. They are become less and less a national party and instead becoming a shrill, localized regional one...sort of like a painful rectal itch.

Nov. 5th, 2009 01:49 am (UTC)
Or...they might think they need to move further to the right/center. Time will tell.

Think they'd get the idea that the House just got 2 more votes for their agenda. I guess when the Governor's of VA and NJ decide to try to opt-out of HCR there might be some interesting fireworks...

Stocking up on popcorn...
Nov. 5th, 2009 04:04 pm (UTC)
Actually, when I said "rather than using it as an excuse to continue being cowards" what I meant was "use it as an excuse to run to the center/right." But I agree that this is all going to be very interesting.
Nov. 4th, 2009 08:02 pm (UTC)
Great post!

...and good point kmarkhoover, too.
Nov. 4th, 2009 08:10 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Estellye. And yes, Mark always has great comments.
Nov. 5th, 2009 12:47 am (UTC)
I'm with you on this. NY-23 was the race of the night. It also didn't help Hoffman that he didn't live in the district. Nothing those folks up there hate more than outsiders telling them waht to do.

I can't speak for the Virginia race, but I think the NJ governorship had nothing to do with Obama. Corzine is hated in NJ - he's done a terrible job, and his campaign basically consisted of him calling his opponent fat. Plus I think there's starting to be an anti-rich guy effect - Bloomberg was supposed to win NYC in a landslide and merely squeaked by. Guys like Corzine and Bloomberg are being perceived as guys who caused the current mess (Corzine yes, Bloomberg no), and I think that showed up at the polls as well.

That, at any rate, is this New Yorker's take on what happened locally. Now off to root for the Phils.
Nov. 5th, 2009 04:06 pm (UTC)
Very interesting take on what happened with Bloomberg and Corzine. Hadn't thought of it, but it makes a good deal of sense. I wonder if Carly Fiorina has given this any thought....
Nov. 5th, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)
I'd probably need some odds to bet on it, but I wouldn't at all be surprised if Fiorina isn't in the race next September. The far right already hates her, and her business bona fides are crap - she nearly ran HP into the ground.
Nov. 5th, 2009 01:47 am (UTC)
"the outlying Rasmussen poll"

Can remove the word "out" from that...

Would have been better to win, but this is a wake up call for the Democrats knowing they can't rest and be complacent and doesn't seem to have effected the far-right in their desire to put up ultra-conservative candidates in the primaries, even in the NE.

"Be my guest"

Unfortunately, that is the way they're heading. It might be a good thing for the Democratic Party, not sure it's the best thing for the country.

Lot of hand-wringing by lukewarm Dems today. The same ones that claim they want the Congress and the White House to find a backbone seem to have trouble locating their own.

It will be an interesting 12 months...
Nov. 5th, 2009 04:09 pm (UTC)
Yeah, Rasmussen is pretty far out there. Not surprising that they've become Fox's pollster of choice.

And I agree that Dems need to steel their nerve, or else we will be in trouble. The lesson of last night should be this: If you run as a lukewarm cross between Dem and Republican (as Deeds did) or if you reveal yourself to be too incompetent to act, as Corzine did, you lose. The way to win is to run as a committed, progressive Democrat, the way the two Congressional candidates did.
Nov. 5th, 2009 07:06 am (UTC)
I am not too upset over the NY23 election. I can draw hope from it in fact. As David pointed out, yes, they vote Republician but not Conservative. We are talking about a guy who ran as a 3rd party canidate (Conservative Party). The Republican canidate left the race and endorsed the Democrat for goodness sakes. So for a 3rd party canidate (without the campaign/party ground troops), garnering almost half the vote in an overwhelmingly Liberal district is a huge accomplishment. The Republican "Big Tent" philosophy has failed. The tent has gotten so big that it diluted the Party Platform. The Republican idealism is what made them distinct from teh Democrats. Republicans used to be able to draw the line and say that we stood for A,B, and C. It was the Democrats who floundered around trying to appease everyone. Now the Republicans have gotten just as weak and blind as teh Democrats. The Big Tent philosophy was pushed upon the Republicans by the Democratcally controled Media establishment. It is time that we as Republicans cleanse ourselves of the RIMOs and return to our Conservative values.

As for the governor's races, if they were so unimportant, why did Barack take time away from his important schedule to campaign for the Democrats? Also, why did Hillary Clinton say that the results of them would be a referendum on the Obama Administration?

I am looking forward to 2010 so that the Conservatives can take back Congress and provide a check on Obama's and the Democrats' grab for greater Federal Government invasion into our personal liberty. I just hope the nation will last that long.
Nov. 5th, 2009 04:24 pm (UTC)
Hmmmm. I think, Mark, you're missing the point of what I wrote about the NY 23rd. It is not an overwhelmingly liberal district. Far, far from it. Along with the districts (I think there are two) on Staten Island, it's been the most reliably conservative and Republican district in NY for a century and a half. Now granted a conservative district in NY is not as conservative as Marsha Blackburn's district. But still, there is no way a Democrat should have won this race. Also, the Conservative Party in NY, while certainly a "third party" is not typical of third parties elsewhere. It has a long history in the state, and has deep pockets. James Buckley ran as a Conservative and won Bobby Kennedy's Senate seat in 1970, and I'm pretty sure that Alphonse D'Amato won in 1980 by running on the GOP and Conservative lines simultaneously (which many Repubs do in NY). Finally, while Hoffman didn't have the ground troops, he did have a ton of money, because Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and Armey funneled money into the state in huge amounts. That was their plan: to swamp the race with conservative funds and make a statement for the Tea Party-ers.

The fact that Scozzafava endorsed Owens, and that her endorsement worked, should upset you very much. That is the future of the Conservative movement staring you in the face. It could happen in Florida and a bunch of other places. The fact is, without moderates, the GOP becomes a marginal party at best. Christie and McDonnell won by running as moderates (Christie might actually be one; McDonnell is not, but he managed to pull it off because he was such an appealing, optimistic, positive candidate and Deeds was not). But the fact that a well-funded Conservative like Hoffman can't even win in NY-23 shows the limits of Palin's strategy. Dems are unruly and they fight amongst themselves. Sometimes the Blue-Dogs give me ulcers. But the fact is that the party is well-positioned for the future because we have a far more open party than the GOP. Your contempt for the Big Tent Philosophy flies in the face of all that Ronald Reagan taught the GOP about politics. I never liked Reagan, but he understood that welcoming Republicans of all stripes strengthened the party. Palin is destroying the GOP. On the one hand, I'm glad to see it. On the other hand, I agree with Hedwig above: having two strong, Big-Tent parties is probably the best thing for the country.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )


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