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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.

Another major shift came on the economy. Polls have shown through much of the year that Americans blame former president George W. Bush more than Obama for the recession. But if the economic collapse was a powerful force working for Obama and the Democrats last year, it clearly helped Republicans on Tuesday.

Just over half the electorate in both states said they were very worried about the economy, according to the exit polls, percentages almost identical to a year ago. But last year Obama carried those voters by 59 to 40 percent in Virginia and by 61 to 38 percent in New Jersey. On Tuesday, McDonnell won three in four of those voters, while Christie won about three in five.

A blip or a warning for 2010?

White House senior adviser David Axelrod said Tuesday's races were in no way a reflection of public opinion about the president or his agenda. "Whatever's driving these voters, it wasn't attitudes toward the president," he said, noting that local issues and attitudes toward the candidates on the ballots were the major influences.

Axelrod warned against extrapolating into the future the shift among independents. He said he believed that many people who called themselves Republicans in the past now call themselves independents but are still voting for Republican candidates. "I don't think they portend long-term trends," he said.

He said the only race with real national implications was the congressional contest in Upstate New York. "It's more significant because of the message it sends to moderate Republicans that there's no room at the inn," he said.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said he agreed that Tuesday's races were not a referendum on the president. But he argued that Obama's policies were creating anxiety among voters that was helping Republican candidates.

"It's not about the president personally. The president's not unpopular. Americans want our presidents to succeed. But the president's policies are very unpopular, and they are hurting Democrats in Virginia, New Jersey, New York," Barbour said.

The party holding the White House has now lost nine consecutive gubernatorial elections in Virginia. In addition, Deeds proved to be a weak and ineffective candidate and got into a public spat with the White House by saying that Obama's policies were hurting him in the race. But McDonnell's big victory Tuesday was nonetheless a setback for the White House.

Obama was the first Democratic nominee to win Virginia since 1964, and in many ways, the state was emblematic of his "expand the map" electoral strategy nationally and the new coalition he attracted. Obama had other important victories -- in Colorado, North Carolina, Indiana -- but few were as satisfying to his team as that in Virginia.

On Tuesday, Virginia moved back in the direction of Republicans, a reminder that the political landscape is far more fluid than it appeared to be a year ago -- and a challenge for the White House and the Democrats as they look toward 2010.

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