The non-referendum

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009; 9:26 AM

To hear some pundits tell it, the earth moved yesterday.

Yes, the outcome of two gubernatorial races and one congressional contest in Plattsburgh, N.Y., are such a huge deal that they warranted full-blown election-night cable coverage last night and big newspaper analyses in the morning papers.

Now that the results are in, of course, the national press is free to ignore what Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie actually do in Richmond and Trenton for the next four years, unless someone gets indicted or is found with a mistress on the public payroll.

It was, to be sure, a good day for the Republicans. The more thoughtful pundits have tempered their remarks, saying that the 2009 results offer limited clues to how President Obama is faring. But let's face it, there's a huge hype machine out that's been pumping up the national significance of these off-year results. Because if the contests don't have national, even cosmic, significance, then why would anyone in the other 48 states care? What would underemployed political reporters have to write? How would they get on the air?

Imagine if this handful of races took place during next year's midterms. How much national attention would Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell get? How much national attention would NY-23 get? That's my point.

Now obviously, these contests don't take place in a vacuum. Obama repeatedly campaigned in New Jersey for Jon Corzine. The White House criticized the Deeds effort in Virginia. If all the Democrats had won, administration officials and liberal pundits would be proclaiming a great vote of confidence in the president. Instead, it's Republicans and conservatives who are doing the bragging (except for the upstate New York district where the GOP candidate bailed and the Democrat pulled it out).

I still cling to the view that local races turn mostly on local personalities and local issues. The exit polls basically invalidated much of the journalistic buildup, with majorities in Virginia (55 percent) and New Jersey (60 percent) saying Obama was not a factor in their vote and the rest closely divided.

Whether Obama gets a health-care bill, and what kind of bill he gets, will ultimately be far more important to his first term than the Tuesday contests. But could the media cacophony affect the political climate, in a classic self-fulfilling prophecy?

LAT: "Republicans seized the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday, giving the GOP a psychological boost heading into next year's midterm elections. . . .

"Republicans were quick to cast their wins as a referendum on the president and a severe setback for Obama. But any meaning was muddied by differences among Tuesday's assorted campaigns, which were shaped more by personalities and parochial interests than any overarching themes."

NYT: "The Republican victories in the races for New Jersey and Virginia governors put the party in a stronger position to turn back the political wave President Obama unleashed last year, setting the stage for Republicans to raise money, recruit candidates and ride the excitement of an energized base as the party heads into next year's midterm elections."

WP: "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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