Washington Matters


Wins Recharge GOP Base,
Set Back Obama

Richard Sammon

Setback for Democrats will slow Obama agenda, embolden minority Republicans.



Republicans gained vital new ground in yesterday’s off year election with a landslide in the Virginia governor’s race and an important defeat of an incumbent Democrat in New Jersey’s governor’s race. Conservative Republicans were also energized anew by an internal party victory in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, even though the divisive battle ended up giving Democrats a victory.

Each race had different dynamics and the results are not necessarily predictive of how well the GOP will do in the more important 2010 national midterm elections, but they do reflect a shifting national mood, sustained voter anxiety over the economy, jobs and record high federal spending. The results will affect the political environment for months as majority Democrats brace for next year’s midterm elections when historically the minority makes gains.

The most significant result was in New Jersey, where former federal prosecutor Chris Christie, R, defeated Gov. Jon Corzine, D, 49% to 45%, in a Democratic leaning state that Obama easily carried in 2008 and where he campaigned heavily for the well-funded but struggling Corzine this fall. That loss hurts Democrats arguably more than the loss in Virginia, where former Attorney General Bob McDonnell easily defeated State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, 59% to 41%. Deeds ran an ineffective campaign, failed to motivate state Democrats and independents and largely distanced himself from President Obama until the final days. Virginia, which Obama also carried last year, has consistently elected a governor of the opposite party of the president, but it’s noteworthy that Virginians yesterday also elected Republicans to the lieutenant governor and the attorney general slots.

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A Republican blood feud between moderates and conservatives in New York -- one fueled by national party luminaries who staked out sides --  helped Democrat Bill Owens edge out Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, 49%-45%, following the withdrawal from the race over the weekend by moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava. Even though it lost the race in the historically safe Republican district, the conservative base of the GOP can claim a win in forcing out the more moderate Republican nominated by party leaders in the district. They will try to replicate that in other primaries and elections next year. It ensures several very divisive battles as conservatives aim to purge moderates, and the intraparty battles may give Democrats some unexpected gains.

How much of a setback for Obama?  Certainly Tuesday’s results were a blow, but they were less of a referendum on the president than on the state of the economy. Neither McDonnell nor Christie, for example, ran their campaigns with prominent anti-Obama themes. Still, the results show undeniable new life in the GOP after the party suffered bruising defeats in 2006 and 2008, and they may undercut the  momentum and support that Obama needs to pass health care this year and as he seeks support for his upcoming decision on troop levels in Afghanistan. Moderates in Congress who may face tight reelections will be hesitant to support Obama and more left-of-center and partisan congressional leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Look for Tuesday’s results to propel Obama to work even more aggressively to pass health care this year, knowing it could be even more difficult to pass next year as the elections get closer. His message to fence sitters will be that not passing health care will imperil their political fates, too. Failure on health care would make the White House and Democrats look ineffective as a governing party, unable to deliver on ambitious goals.

The losses also show the limited persuasion or coattails Obama has on the campaign trail in races where his name is not on the ballot. Young voter turnout was low, as was turnout by African Americans, two groups who helped elect him president and flipped previously red states like Virginia and North Carolina. His legendary “net roots” operation that helped organize new voters was not apparent yesterday, and that calls into question whether it will be any more effective next year.




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