By seizing gubernatorial seats in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans on Tuesday dispelled any notion of President Barack Obama's electoral invincibility, giving the GOP a lift and offering warning signs to Democrats ahead of the 2010 midterm elections.
WASHINGTON — By seizing gubernatorial seats in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans on Tuesday dispelled any notion of President Barack Obama's electoral invincibility, giving the GOP a lift and offering warning signs to Democrats ahead of the 2010 midterm elections.
Republican leaders were quick to cast Tuesday's outcome as a rebuke of Obama, nearly a year after his election. "It sends a clear signal that voters have had enough of the president's liberal agenda," Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele said after Robert F. McConnell emerged as the winner in Virginia.
Still, Democrats could take some solace in Tuesday's results, as the party swiped a traditionally Republican House seat in the far north of New York. The contest drew wide notice as moderates and nationally prominent conservatives waged a fierce battle over the future of the Republican Party. With 88 percent of the precincts reporting, Democrat Bill Owens had 49 percent to conservative Doug Hoffman's 45 percent.
In Virginia, McConnell took 59 percent to Democrat R. Creigh Deeds' 41 percent, with 99 percent of precincts reporting. In New Jersey, Republican Chris Cristie took 49 percent to Jon Corzine's 45 percent, with 99 percent in.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Democrats easily held onto an open seat when Lt. Gov. John Garamendi defeated Republican David Harmer. With about a third of the precincts reporting, Garamendi was ahead 56 percent to 40 percent.
History suggests that off-year elections are far from predictive. In 2001 — at a like point in Republican George W. Bush's presidency — Democrats won the governorships in New Jersey and Virginia, then lost House and Senate seats a year later.
But even before a single vote was cast Tuesday, Democrats had cause for concern.
With Obama slipping in polls and many voters unhappy with the Democratic-run Congress, "It's been increasingly clear over the last few months that Democrats were likely to have a tough midterm next year," said Charlie Cook, who handicaps races nationwide for his nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "What we've seen tonight doesn't dispute that assumption."
Tuesday's gubernatorial results certainly won't help Democrats. Perceptions are important in politics — often more so than reality — and the GOP's success, including a sweep of all three statewide offices in Virginia, should boost the party's fundraising and candidate recruitment in the coming weeks.
More significant was the makeup of Tuesday's electorate in Virginia and New Jersey, states Obama carried a year ago. It was whiter than the electorate that turned out in 2008 to make Obama the first black president in the nation's history, and suggested the difficulty that Democrats could have attracting minority voters without the president atop the ticket.
Also worrisome for Democrats was the sentiment among independents, the voters who swing between parties and often decide elections. They went overwhelmingly Republican in Virginia and New Jersey; if that dynamic carries over to next year, it could mean serious losses for Obama and Democrats fighting to keep their majorities on Capitol Hill.
"Democrats who look at 2006 and 2008 and assume there was some kind of permanent change should be shaken out of their lethargy," said Mark Mellman, a party strategist, referring to banner years when Democrats won control of Congress and the White House, respectively. "It doesn't mean we're going to lose in 2010, but we'd be very foolish to simply assume we're going to win."
Both major parties invested millions of dollars in the gubernatorial contests, aiming not just to push their candidates first across the finish line but also to shape the way the results are interpreted ahead of the midterm vote, when most governors, a third of the Senate and all 435 House seats will be on the ballot.
In the short term, the off-year results will surely color perceptions within the Washington Beltway, as Obama and the Democratic-run Congress strive to pass landmark healthcare reform legislation, then turn to a major bill to fight global warming.
The outcome, amplified in the echo chambers of cable TV, talk radio and the partisan blogosphere, is unlikely to make things easier for the White House and its allies.
"While the results weren't primarily about President Obama, Republicans will now be energized and Democrats will have to spend the next few weeks explaining what went wrong," said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "The results can only further frighten Democrats on Capitol Hill from swing and GOP-leaning districts."
There is a danger in reading too much into the elections, given the differences between the two gubernatorial contests, which were shaped far more by personalities and parochial interests than any overarching national themes.
In New Jersey, Democrat Jon Corzine sought to salvage his candidacy by declaring Obama a full partner in his governorship. In Virginia, Democrat Creigh Deeds offered only half-hearted support for the president, a sentiment the White House returned in kind.
McDonnell's victory, in the president's backyard, seemed cut-and-dried for weeks, if not months. He was a stronger, more polished candidate than Deeds, with history on his side: contrarian Virginia voters have not elected a governor from the same party as the president in more than 30 years. Even so, the outcome was a disappointment for Democrats, who hoped they were on a roll after winning both U.S. Senate seats, the last two governorships and winning the state in the 2008 presidential race for the first time in 44 years. This time, however, GOP voters were as energized as Democrats were blase, fueled by anger over Obama's expansive agenda and the sizable growth in deficit spending.
The same sort of populist upset over taxes — a perennial sore point in New Jersey — helped fueled the GOP victory there.
In New York, a wild cheer erupted shortly after midnight in Democrat Owens' crowded party room when word circulated that Republican Hoffman had conceded. Parts of the district have been in Republican hands since after the Civil War. But the race turned into another of the battles over the future of the GOP after the local party nominated Dede Scozzafava, a moderate who broke with conservative orthodoxy by supporting legalized abortion and same-sex marriage.
Conservatives around the country helped lead a revolt, backing Hoffman, who surged past Scozzafava in polls. She abruptly quit the race Saturday and the next day endorsed Owens.
The results will surely stoke the debate between Republicans who say the party needs to moderate its views to broaden its appeal and those who say only uncompromising conservatives can win back Congress and the White House. But Cook suggested there was no broader significance.
"The congressional election in New York was so bizarre it doesn't resemble any race we've seen and isn't likely to look like any of the 510 House, Senate or gubernatorial races next year," Cook said.
Times staff writers Fiore reported from Washington and Barabak from San Francisco. Times staff writer Tina Susman in New York contributed to this report.