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What do the Virginia and New Jersey elections mean for the national stage?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009 8:06 PM

The Post asked experts who the winners and losers on the national stage are following of the 2009 off-year elections. Below are contributions from Ed Rogers, Douglas E. Schoen, Tony Fratto, Karen Finney and Larry J. Sabato.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

Even though he only won the Virginia governors race, Bob McDonnell was the biggest winner on the national political stage. The GOP is looking for a dream challenger for President Obama in 2012, and McDonnell's blank canvas will be filled by the wandering Republicans starting today. McDonnell could have a long national honeymoon, and the Virginia governor's office has been a good place from which to launch a national political profile.

Winning both governors races makes Gov. Haley Barbour (Miss.), chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a big winner. Even though he inherited both campaigns after Gov. Mark Sanford (S.C.) took an early hike from the RGA chairmanship, Barbour kept the money flowing and the organizations on track. He is very good and very lucky. Democrats should take note of both. He is the 2012 sleeper.

GOP candidate recruiters at every level are big winners. The Republican Party is alive. Independents are in play. There is no surviving Obama wave. Even the fact that the most of the GOP leadership is unappealing could become a recruiting tool. There is plenty of opportunity to move up quick in the GOP.

The biggest losers of the night were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. A big portion of the Democratic congressional caucus just became a lot more nervous and leery of tough votes than they were yesterday. A watered-down bill called health-care reform's "first step" will pass, but forget about cap and trade in 2010, forget about a climate/energy bill. Look for the Democrats in Congress to fight among themselves for a while.

David Axelrod, Obama's political strategist, could not be happy with his political management and must be considered an '09 loser. This White House is overreaching and overestimating its power on both political and policy fronts. It was unnecessary and unbecoming to humiliate Virginia gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds with leaks and a public autopsy before his defeat. And it was clumsy to publicly declare control of the Corzine campaign. Meanwhile, they wasted Obama's popularity by having a national message about health care when voters care about jobs and the economy. But maybe this was a fortuitous time for the Obama team to learn their lesson.

Bottom line: Republicans will have the wind at their backs for a while. Can we lift a sail? For Democrats, remember, in politics, bad gets worse.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

The election results Tuesday represent a real shot across the bow for all incumbents, making them the big losers, along with President Obama, who staked his prestige on the outcome of the New Jersey gubernatorial election.

In the New Jersey, Virginia, and the Upstate New York congressional race that was contested, the incumbent party lost as voters decisively rejected extremism and voted for change -- largely by embracing fiscally moderate candidates who promised a new direction.

The one incumbent who did win, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, explicitly rejected partisan appeals, running on the slogan of Progress Not Partisanship.

The other big winners are political independents who were the decisive voting bloc in each contested election.

The big outstanding question is whether Obama, whose candidates lost in New Jersey, Virginia and New York City, will hear the message and change the tone and substance of his approach.

Independents by and large want bipartisanship and conciliation, and they sounded a clear message that they would swing away from an incumbent or a party who fails to embrace their results-oriented approach.

Only by doing this can Obama reverse his fortunes next year and avoid a substantial defeat in the mid-term elections.

TONY FRATTO

Deputy assistant to President George W. Bush and deputy press secretary from September 2006 to January 2009

I see two clear outcomes from Tuesday's elections. First, campaigning against the past is over. Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey began the gubernatorial campaigns by trying to link Republican candidates with former President George W. Bush. Those efforts fell on deaf ears with voters, and that's a message the Obama White House should heed. This will require a major rhetoric adjustment by the White House, but Americans are not interested in hearing about the past; they're focused on the present and the future.

A second revelation is that Obama campaigning in all three major races apparently had no net effect on voters. I was surprised to see Democrats trumpeting exit polls showing that Obama was a "non-factor" in the New Jersey race for governor. To have a president Democrats expected to lead a transformational party realignment be so unpersuasive with voters despite his personal campaign appearances must be disappointing for the Democratic Party -- and correspondingly uplifting for Republicans.

A "non-factor" president has real implications for the Obama agenda -- on health care, climate, and spending in particular. Getting the Obama agenda through Congress requires a president who is feared and respected. Non-factors are neither.

Obama can still be formidable as a fundraiser for Democrats. The White House will still have the enormous advantages of the world's loudest megaphone and Congress still has the ability to control the agenda. But the message Democratic candidates in competitive districts heard today is that issues matter far more to voters than either the past or Obama's personal powers of persuasion.

KAREN FINNEY

Democratic consultant and commentator; former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee

No doubt wins in New Jersey and Virginia will give the GOP a much-needed morale boost, the same way they did for Democrats in 2005. However, Republicans were denied the thing they wanted most: a referendum on President Obama and a rallying cry for 2010. In both states voters made it clear that while the economy was a top concern, Obama was not a factor in their vote. Both Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie were seen as running more positive campaigns, de-emphasizing the socio-cultural issues, and neither attacked Obama, who remains popular in both states. In New York's 23rd district, the Republican candidate was forced out of the race by a darling of the right wing who was handily defeated by Democrat Bill Owens.

Come Wednesday morning, the GOP will have to face the dual realities that their base is shrinking and the ideological chasm is widening. Republican wins relied heavily on their traditional base of voters who are mostly older, male and white. Neither was able to appeal to African Americans, Hispanic or younger voters -- groups that are critical in the future electorate both parties will need to win national elections.

LARRY J. SABATO

Director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and author of "A More Perfect Constitution"

Beleaguered Republicans got a tonic on Tuesday. The significance of the off-year elections may be overblown, yet the results will help Republicans recruit some strong congressional and state legislative candidates for 2010.

When a party drops the two big prizes on any election night, it leads the list of losers. Two thousand nine is not a year Democrats will fondly remember. President Obama couldn't help Creigh Deeds duplicate his transformative '08 victory in competitive Virginia, and, more surprisingly, Obama couldn't help an ally, Gov. Jon Corzine, in heavily Democratic New Jersey. Obama apparently has coattails only when he is at the top of the ballot, and that must worry shaky Democratic incumbents up in '10.

Democratic National Committee Chairman and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine is also high up on the list of losers. He presided over an electoral debacle in his own state. Unlike his predecessor, Gov. Mark Warner, he failed to prepare the way for a Democratic successor in Richmond and probably made a serious mistake in becoming chairman at all. It took him out of state too much and made him a partisan rather than a unifying figure. National ambitions have tripped up four of the last five Virginia governors. When you only have one four-year term, maybe the voters expect you to take care of business at home. Bob McDonnell might want to remember that when he is touted for the 2012 national GOP ticket.

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