Are Democrats Riding a National Wave?

By Terry M. Neal Staff Writer
Thursday, November 10, 2005; 11:05 AM

With key wins in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, some Democratic leaders are all but declaring the beginning of the end for Republicans.

But were Tuesday's results, which included Californians' rejection of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's four "reform" ballot initiatives, truly signs of a national wave? Or were the results a series of events based on the unique dynamics of each state?

For their part, Democrats are waxing up their surfboards to ride a wave.

"This portends really well for the future," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Unless George Bush reverses his policies and reaches to the middle you're going to see many more victories like this."

"In the most significant test of the political environment since 2004, Americans yesterday resoundingly supported the new priorities of Democratic candidates over the status quo policies of President Bush and Republican leadership," Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement Wednesday.

It's hard to argue against Tuesday's elections being good news for Democrats. Democrats proved they could compete with Republicans in a red state (Virginia) while holding ground in traditional coastal strongholds that the GOP has been eyeing for gains.

More importantly, it appears that Bush's power as an electoral draw is significantly diminished from the 2002 midterms, when he made a last-minute blitz around the country, helping to tip the balance in a number of close races in his party's favor.

In New Jersey, a Democratic-leaning state where Republicans have been competitive in statewide races, gubernatorial candidate Jon Corzine ran ads linking Republican opponent Doug Forrester to Bush. The fact that those were seen as attack ads says something about how the political landscape has changed since last November.

If Bush's poll numbers remain low, Democrats won't have to fear him coming to their states to campaign for their opponents next year. That's important, because a popular president can make a point or two difference by actively campaigning for a candidate. As of last month, Bush's approval rating was above 50 percent in only six states.

But there's plenty of data to suggest that Democrats are overstating the importance of Tuesday's results. An Election Day survey by the Associated Press and Ipsos showed that only 20 percent of New Jersey voters cast ballots in favor of Corzine to demonstrate opposition to Bush. And congressional Democrats have an approval rating that rivals Bush's (according to the latest nonpartisan Pew Research Center poll, Bush and congressional Democrats approval rating was tied at just 36 percent).

It's also difficult to make the case that the results in California, where voters soundly defeated four initiatives backed by Schwarzenegger, are a sign of a national wave. California is already in solid Democratic territory. And few consider Schwarzenegger and Bush to be closely allied through friendship or ideology. The California vote was the result of what happens when the bright lure of celebrity begins to take a back seat to actual governing. Californians appear to have tired of Schwarzenegger just as they tired of Democrat Gray Davis before him.

Virginia is the Democrat's best case for arguing for national implications. Like many southern states, it has been solidly Republican for years.

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