Lessons from off-year elections tend to be overdrawn, as much a reflection of political reporters trying to justify their existence as any message that may have been sent by the electorate. But if there is one thing that Democratic candidates in next year's midterm congressional elections might want to take from the party's bad night on Tuesday, it is this: You are on your own.
The evening produced a sweep for the Republicans in the two most closely watched races. In New Jersey, a state that Barack Obama had carried by 15 percentage points last year, unpopular incumbent Democratic Governor Jon Corzine fell to Republican Chris Christie, a former U.S. Attorney. It marked the first time in 12 years that New Jersey has elected a Republican statewide. In Virginia, Bob McDonnell, a former state attorney general, handily defeated Democratic State Senator Creigh Deeds for governor; meanwhile, GOP victories down the Virginia ballot brought to a halt the gains that Democrats had made over the past few election cycles.
But in a sign that Republicans still have a long way to go to regain their political and ideological footing, Democrat Bill Owens managed to win what turned out to be a wild special election to fill an open congressional seat in upstate New York. Republicans had divided between their own party's moderate nominee and a Conservative Party challenger who had won the endorsements of many high-profile national GOP leaders, including former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and talk-show host Glenn Beck. Three days before the election, GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava abruptly announced she was suspending her campaign, and subsequently endorsed Democrat Owens, rather than Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman.
Predictably, victorious Republicans tried to spin their wins in Virginia and New Jersey as a referendum on the man who, almost exactly a year before, had won both states handily in the 2008 presidential election. "This is the first time since 1997 that the Republican Party has swept all three top state offices in Virginia," GOP chairman Michael Steele crowed as the first results came in. "The Republican Party's overwhelming victory in Virginia is a blow to President Obama and the Democrat Party. It sends a clear signal that voters have had enough of the President's liberal agenda."
But in fact, Obama still enjoys favorable approval ratings in both Virginia and New Jersey. And according to the exit polls, he wasn't much of a motivator for the relatively small number of voters who actually bothered to cast a ballot. In New Jersey, 60% said the President was not a factor in their decisions; among those who said he was, nearly as many were there to show their support (19%) as their opposition (20%) to Obama. In Virginia, the results were similar. Weighing far more heavily were concerns about the economy.
What the election may have shown is that Obama's popularity cannot be transferred. The President had campaigned and raised money for both Corzine and Deeds; Obama had also tried to put the remnants of his own campaign operation to use on their behalf. But many of those who voted for him in 2008, particularly young people and African Americans, stayed home this year. And in the end, both Corzine and Deeds stumbled on their own weaknesses.
Looking forward, that could have implications for the President's agenda. His fellow Democrats could become even more attuned to the rhythms of their constituencies and less willing to risk stepping out of line to further Obama's priorities when they are not in line with those of voters back home. That may not bode well for Obama's health care bill, especially after Senate majority leader Harry Reid signaled Tuesday that Congress is unlikely to deliver a bill to Obama's desk this year. That means the contentious debate will stretch into 2010 an election year when there will be far more political careers at stake.