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E.J. Dionne Jr. on Tuesday's election lessons for Democrats

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, November 5, 2009

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. Tuesday's elections were a rebuke to the right wing and a warning to Democrats.

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They were also a timely reminder that President Obama needs to tune up his celebrated political organization and find a way to make Americans feel hopeful again.

The night's biggest loser was the national conservative political machine -- the wealthy tax-cutters at the Club for Growth and the Palin-Limbaugh-Beck complex. The Beltway Right shoved aside local Republicans in an Upstate New York congressional race, imposed their own candidate who didn't even live in the district, and went down in a heap.

To understand the importance of the defeat of third-party Conservative Doug Hoffman by Democrat Bill Owens in New York's 23rd District, consider the narrative that would have been woven if Hoffman had won.

Combined with Republican victories in the New Jersey and Virginia governors' races, a Hoffman triumph would have been heralded as the beginning of a new conservative revolution, a reproach to Republican moderates as well as to Obama Democrats, and a sign that "big government," including the Democrats' health-care plan, was on the run.

Instead, voters in the district (parts of which have been Republican since Abraham Lincoln's day) staged a different kind of rebellion. Furious that big conservative money and national personalities such as Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck had forced out Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava -- the official, moderate, locally chosen Republican candidate -- they turned to Owens.

The Democrat was the perfect candidate for a middle-of-the-road protest. He had only recently been a political independent and presented himself as having no ideological edges. The spurned Scozzafava backed him, creating a moderate united front. June O'Neill of the New York Democratic state committee called Owens's victory a "backlash" against "the way they treated our friend and neighbor." We know who "they" are.

The Owens win puts the victories of Republicans Chris Christie in New Jersey and Bob McDonnell in Virginia in a different light. Both won governorships by focusing on the need to win voters smack in the middle of the electorate: moderates, independents and suburbanites. David Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser, engaged in a bit of self-serving hyperbole when he said in an interview that McDonnell ran "not as a Sarah Palin Republican, but more as a Barack Obama centrist," yet his point was right: McDonnell knew where the votes were.

So did Christie, who capitalized on a deep, personal disaffection with incumbent New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine. Christie, like McDonnell, managed in reverse the excite-the-base, win-the-middle strategy Democrats pursued so effectively in 2006 and 2008. Christie ran up huge margins in Republican counties but also won over previously Democratic voters who were angry but not ideological.

Democrats will highlight Obama's continued strong approval ratings in New Jersey as part of their larger argument that these contests were local in character. But the disaffection in Virginia and New Jersey -- and the unexpected narrowness of New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's reelection margin, despite his record-breaking campaign spending -- should worry all incumbents, particularly governors seeking reelection next year. And after their strong showings in the past two national elections, Democrats happen to constitute a large share of the pool of incumbents.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, as he made his way to Corzine's concession speech at a hotel here, said he sees an electorate in a dark mood. "There are two things happening," the New Jersey Democrat noted. "One is fear. The other is punishment. Voters fear for themselves and their families, and they want to punish anyone who got them into this condition."

What Lautenberg underscored is a spirit far different than the buoyant confidence Obama inspired a year ago. And the Obama change-agents, particularly the young, were notably absent from the voting booths this week. In Virginia, a state Obama carried comfortably last year, a majority of those who showed up to vote on Tuesday said they had backed John McCain. This much more Republican electorate produced a GOP landslide all the way down the Virginia ballot.

That is the fact from this week that Democrats would be fools to ignore. It's not a resurgent right wing that should trouble Obama's party. Indeed, the stronger the right's role in shaping the Republican message, the harder it will be for middle-of-the-road voters to use the Republicans to express their discontent. But for the moment, the thrill is gone from politics, and that is very dangerous for the mainstream progressive movement that Obama promised to build.

For further election analysis from E.J. Dionne Jr., look here and here.

ejdionne@washpost.com


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