What Republican Wins in New Jersey and Virginia Mean For Obama And The 2010 Election

Posted on November 12, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized |

By Scott Orr

With the 2009 election in the rear view mirror, two clear questions emerge: Do decisive Republican victories in two key gubernatorial races mean the Obama honeymoon is over? And, what do the results say about the mood of the American electorate looking forward to 2010?

A year after they sent Obama to the White House as the candidate of change, American voters again opted for change in a pair of states Obama carried in 2008. In New Jersey they rejected Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine in favor of Republican Chris Christie, while Virginians chose to end Democratic control by choosing Republican Bob McDonnell over Creigh Deeds.

Two things are certain: Republicans, emboldened by the wins, will continue to chip away at the Obama agenda, starting with his costly health care reform and economic recovery programs; and, by the time you read this, both parties will already have moved on to what promises to be a tantalizing and revealing 2010 election cycle.  

“I don’t think it’s so much a referendum on the president. It certainly is, I think, a checkpoint on the policies,” Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said during an election post mortem with reporters.

“Certainly, the president has put forth policies that are…controversial, but I think out of the mainstream of where America is. America doesn’t want the federal government running its health care. America doesn’t want the federal government buying its cars for it and telling them what cars to drive. America doesn’t want the federal government running its banks,” Steele said.

The White House, meanwhile, dismissed the results saying voters reacted as they always do the year after presidential elections in rejecting the party of the candidate they endorsed just one year earlier.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that Obama did not see the results as an early sign that Americans had soured on his presidency. “People went to the polls and voted on local issues not to either register support for or opposition to the president,” he said.

Outgoing Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, the Democratic National Committee Chairman, expressed similar feelings: “In exit polls in both Virginia and New Jersey, strong majorities of citizens said their vote was based on local issues and was not at all connected with their views of the president. When they were asked then about their views of the president in exit polls in both states, they had good things to say about their approval of the way he was handling his job.”

Still, there are implications as the 2009 election year gives way to the much more critical 2010 cycle in which the House and one-third of the Senate will be decided by voters.

“The common denominator in (Virginia and New Jersey) is that independent-minded voters rejected the Democrats’ super-majority in Washington and elected candidates who made fiscal responsibility a key mantra of their campaigns. Watching their party hemorrhage independent voters should send shivers down the spines of Democrat strategists as they look ahead to Senate elections next year,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Cornyn could be right about that, especially considering the success opposition party candidates historically have enjoyed in elections, like the 2010 races, that come two years after presidential polling.

Still, the Republicans have their work cut out for them in uniting conservatives with the party’s more moderate wing. How well the GOP bridges the gap between its left and right flanks could determine if it can regain lost ground in Congress. Especially competitive are races already taking shape for Senate seats in Nevada, Colorado, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Democrats too face daunting questions, particularly on Capitol Hill where moderate Democrats may be beginning to question the political benefits of sticking with Obama on the bedrock issue of his presidency: the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and health care reform.

Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist and author, urged caution in reading too much into the New Jersey and Virginia results. Sabato analyzed the results of gubernatorial elections in the two states between 1965 and 2005 and found “no support for the belief that the Virginia and New Jersey results predict what will happen across the entire nation next year or that these elections constituted referenda on President Obama’s performance.”

But Democratic pollster Peter Hart, in a memo to clients that was quoted in the Washington Post, said the two states have foretold significant changes in the make-up of Congress, but only in years the public also was dissatisfied with Washington, like the 1979-80 and 1973-74 cycles.

In the current environment, Hart said, Democrats must fear “the disappointment and disgust the American public feels toward Washington” heading into 2010.

So, with the 2010 campaign now joined, both parties have reason to make an early and committed leap into the fray. It promises to be a busy year for politicians and an empowering one for voters.

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