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Contests serve as warning to Democrats: It's not 2008 anymore

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.

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.

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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