In a season of discontent for the White House, Tuesday's election results intensified Republican anxiety that next year's midterm contests could bring serious losses unless George W. Bush finds a way to turn around his presidency and shore up support among disaffected, moderate swing voters.
Off-year gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey have proved to be unreliable predictors of elections, as Republican officials were quick to point out yesterday. But as short-term indicators, Tuesday's results confirmed that nothing happened to alter a political climate that now tilts against the GOP and that the president remains in the midst of a slump.
But Democrats may also have to learn some of the lessons from Tuesday if they hope to capitalize on Bush's weakness and make themselves competitive in red states as well as blue states. In Virginia, victorious candidate Timothy M. Kaine ran a campaign at odds with the strategy of many traditional Democrats, one that focused on religion and values and that appealed as much to swing voters as to the party's base.
Democrats captured the two governorships at stake Tuesday, in Virginia and New Jersey, where Sen. Jon S. Corzine ran away with the race after a nasty campaign. Democrats also buried four ballot initiatives in California championed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and ousted the mayor of St. Paul, Minn., Democrat Randy Kelly, who had betrayed his party by endorsing Bush in last year's presidential election. Democrats failed in their effort to pass a package of political retooling measures in Ohio.
Republican hopes for a quick morale boost had centered on conservative Virginia. Instead, the gubernatorial results there raised concerns among some Republicans that Bush's favored political strategy of mobilizing conservative voters by dividing the electorate on cultural and social issues may have prompted a backlash among voters in inner and outer suburbs who were vital to Bush's reelection in 2004.
"It's not just that they lost these elections," said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, "but that none of their old tricks worked that they've relied on to give them the edge in close contests."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said the GOP's reliance on cultural issues, popular with rural voters, "are just blowing up" in suburban and exurban communities. "You play to your rural base, you pay a price," he said.
Kaine's campaign highlighted tensions within the Democratic Party over whether to pursue a strategy designed largely to energize its left-leaning, antiwar, grass-roots base or move to the center, emphasize cultural issues to neutralize the GOP's advantage there, and talk bread-and-butter issues such as education and economic growth.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said that Kaine adopted a strategy sharply at odds with the approach of leading national Democrats, including the one that was enunciated by Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean during his unsuccessful campaign for the party's 2004 presidential nomination.
Kaine "did not say, 'I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,' " Mehlman said, referring to language Dean used in his own campaign. "He said, 'I represent the Mark Warner wing of the Democratic Party.' Quite the opposite. . . . The Potomac River divides a Democratic Party catering to the MoveOn wing versus a Democratic Party centered in the Mark Warner wing." Indeed, Kaine's success owed less to dissatisfaction with Bush and more to satisfaction with Warner's tenure as governor.
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) said there is an important lesson for Democrats in the Virginia results, arguing that Kaine turned the campaign in his direction by persuasively linking his opposition to the death penalty to his religious faith.
"If you have the luxury of running in New York or California, you might run a different campaign," he said. "But if you run in most of the swing states, for every progressive voter there are probably two swing voters. You've got to appeal to the moderate voters. Swing voters do not respond well to partisanship and to negative campaigning. What they're really looking for are people with integrity and people trying to solve their problems."
For Bush, the results from Tuesday and a succession of new polls showing him at the lowest point of his presidency mean further tensions with congressional Republicans. "It creates an environment where individual members start looking out for themselves rather than the whole team," Republican pollster Bill McInturff said.
Bush put his prestige on the line with an election-eve visit to Virginia and now must live with the reality that some Republicans may be reluctant to have the president campaign for them next year. Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) told radio show host Don Imus yesterday that he does not want the president's help: "No, not at this time." Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), facing a tough reelection race next year, will not appear at a Bush event in Pennsylvania on Friday but said he welcomes Bush in the state in the future.
Three years ago, when Republicans defied history by picking up seats in the 2002 midterm elections, Bush played a crucial role in motivating GOP voters and was widely seen as a major asset in that and the 2004 campaigns. But Mehlman said yesterday that if Republican candidates do not think Bush will help, the president will stay away. "Where people want him to be helpful, he will be helpful," Mehlman told reporters in a conference call.
Party leaders offered competing analyses of the results. Mehlman said they were not tied to Bush's popularity, noting that Republicans lost New Jersey and Virginia four years ago when the president's approval rating was at 87 percent.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) said he would be crowing as the Democrats were doing had the results gone the other way, but he added: "I don't think there's a lot to read into it. The incumbent parties retained what they had."
Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, called the results "a lot of ado about nothing." He said that while Bush's popularity is down, the mood of the country is neither anti-Republican nor anti-incumbent.
But Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, called Tuesday's results "a clear repudiation of George W. Bush and the Republican agenda."
Republicans grumbled privately about the losing Virginia gubernatorial campaign of Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, but some GOP strategists said the real problem is finding an agenda that can rally the party and shake up the political environment. One strategist said that, given the mood of voters, Republicans escaped a much worse outcome Tuesday, but he was gloomy about what the GOP can do next.
"We're tapped out on taxes," he said, asking not to be identified to offer a more candid analysis. "We failed on Social Security. We're nowhere on health care. Medicare didn't do it. The war's not going well. The economy's in fact going well, but we're not getting credit for it."
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.