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ANALYSIS

Gubernatorial contests serve as warning to Democrats

Off-year elections can be notoriously unreliable as predictors of the future, but as a window on how the political landscape might have changed in the year since President Obama won the White House, Tuesday's Republican victories in Virginia and New Jersey delivered clear warnings for the Democrats.

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009; 10:17 AM

Off-year elections can be notoriously unreliable as predictors of the future, but as a window on how the political landscape may have changed in the year since President Obama won the White House, Tuesday's Republican victories in Virginia and New Jersey delivered clear warnings for the Democrats.

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But the Republicans' celebration was marred by the surprise loss of a House seat in upstate New York that had been in GOP hands for more than a century. The race that underscored the consequences of the ideological warfare that now grips the party and threatens its ability to rebuild itself as a broad-based coalition.

Neither gubernatorial election amounted to a referendum on the president, but the changing shape of the electorate in both states and the shifts among key constituencies revealed cracks in the Obama 2008 faction and demonstrated that, at this point, Republicans have the more energized constituency heading into next year's midterm elections.

The most significant change came among independent voters, who solidly backed Democrats in 2006 and 2008 but moved decisively to the Republicans on Tuesday, according to exit polls. In Virginia, independents strongly supported Republican Robert F. McDonnell in his victory over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, while in New Jersey, they supported Republican Chris Christie in his win over Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

For months, polls have shown that independents were increasingly disaffected with some of Obama's domestic policies. They have expressed reservations about the president's health-care efforts and have shown concerns about the growth in government spending and the federal deficit under his leadership.

Tuesday's elections provided the first tangible evidence that Republicans can win their support with the right kind of candidates and the right messages. That is an ominous development for Democrats if it continues unabated into next year. But Republicans could squander that opportunity if they demand candidates who are too conservative to appeal to the middle.

McDonnell pitched his campaign toward the center of the electorate, offering Republicans a model for how to reach independents. But the uproar in New York's 23rd Congressional District, where a populist conservative uprising drove the hand-picked Republican nominee out of the race, showed that ideological warfare still threatens the party.

Age gap reemerges

Beyond the shift among independents, there were other worrisome indicators that the coalition Obama attracted last year is a shrunken force, at least for the time being. One question all year has been whether, without Obama on the ballot, Democrats could attract the new voters who went to the polls in 2008. In New Jersey and Virginia, the answer was no.

Many of the young voters who came out in big numbers in 2008 and strongly backed Obama stayed home Tuesday. In Virginia, voters under age 30 accounted for 10 percent of the electorate, half the share they represented last year. In New Jersey, their turnout also was halved.

Meanwhile, the percentage of voters age 65 and older jumped significantly in Virginia and rose measurably in New Jersey. In both states, these voters tilted slightly more Republican than they did a year ago.

A surge among black voters was another key to Obama's victory in Virginia last year. They were no less Democratic in their balloting Tuesday but turned out in somewhat smaller numbers.

Democrats also saw erosion compared with last year among suburban voters, voters without college degrees and those with family incomes below $50,000. Suburban voters had narrowly backed Obama in Virginia but went solidly for McDonnell on Tuesday; in New Jersey they had voted even more strongly for Obama but were going narrowly for Christie. Non-college graduates voted in roughly the same percentages as a year ago but were decisively more Republican this year -- a roughly 30-point shift in Virginia and about a 15-point shift in New Jersey.


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