We have all heard the prognosticators by now. The fate of the Administration’s health care legislation could be sealed tomorrow, when voters in Virginia and New Jersey pick their new governors – or not.
It has become something of a superstition in Washington that if the two Democratic candidates go down in defeat, next year will be 1994 all over again. That was when the GOP took back Congress after (on the House side) decades in the wilderness.
As of this morning, Virginia can be considered a done deal. I live in the DC area, so am exposed daily to the two Virginia gubernatorial campaigns. A good campaign has a clear message. It speaks to the moment and to the candidate’s plans for addressing voter concerns. It conveys a perspective on government. It merges the candidate’s public personal and that perspective with his or her program. Each comes to validate the others, giving voters confidence both in follow-through and flexibility to meet the unforeseen demands that will come during four years in office.
The GOP candidate in Virginia, Bob McDonnell, is running one of the best I have ever seen. I am sure that I have seen worse campaigns than the one Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate, is running, but I can’t think when. Had this year been last year, Deeds would have been able to embrace the president and been swept through on his message. But in 2009 that message isn’t selling in Virginia, and Mr. Deeds has nothing of his own to say.
New Jersey is another story. As of Friday, the daily report from the Rasmussen polling organization (see http://www.rasmussenreports.com ) showed Republican Chris Christie still leading (though barely) incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine.
In New Jersey it still makes sense for a Democrat to embrace a president whose national approval ratings leave him no longer a reliable plus for his party. So Mr. Corzine is calling his campaign “Yes We Can 2.0”, and the president is stumping for him almost daily. But the governor is also one of the wealthiest men in the nation, having shared the CEO position at Goldman Sachs with former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson before getting the boot in a C-suite dustup. He has outspent Mr. Christie by… well, at last count is was over five to one, but the final tally will undoubtedly climb much higher.
If a Democrat has to spend that kind of money to win an election in a state that in recent years has voted consistently Democratic, what does it say about his victory as a national indicator? Only that Democrats in Congress won’t be able to draw a breath of relief if he squeaks through. If New Jersey goes Corzine by a hair, it will still be bad news for the Democrats nationally. If it goes for Christie, look for a run on security blankets in the House Democratic caucus on Wednesday morning.
Though it is not well understood in the media, the battleground in American politics today is a particular kind of voter. That citizen cast his ballot for George W. Bush and a GOP member of Congress in 2004. Between then and 2008, he or she began voting Democrat.
Several issues moved this voter, but the anchor — the one he or she was most concerned about — was Federal spending. Before 2006, he or she had voted primarily Republican, because the GOP said it was the party of limited government and limited spending. But starting in 2005, this voter stopped believing that line. A big spending Republican Congress and a Republican president unwilling to veto a single spending bill took their toll.
Party professionals tell me that 2008 exit polls showed that the Obama victory margin came from Republican voters who expected the kind of sharp leftward turn we have seen. They didn’t care. They wanted to teach their own party’s leadership a lesson. Recent polls have Republican voters still deeply suspicious of the GOP in Congress. The collapse of support for the highly liberal Republican candidate in New York’s 23rd congressional district in favor of the Conservative Party nominee was another sign of the disgust of former loyalists with the GOP. This suspicion is one thing that the Democrats still have going for them.
The betting now is that Tuesday’s election will not prove enormously conclusive. The betting is wrong. However it turns out, the election is already speaking volumes about where the disaffected GOP vote – the swing vote in American politics — stands today.
In Virginia we know the answer. They have gone home. This probably tells us a lot about the prospects for moderate Democrats outside of major metropolitan areas all over the country.
In New Jersey, a narrow Democratic victory and even more a loss will signal significant Democratic weakness inside the major metropolitan areas. The GOP’s heartbeat is back, much stronger than was expected only a few months ago.
Finally, the race in New York-23 already shows that GOP voters remain fed up with the politics of label trumping the politics of principal. A product of the local GOP organization, the Republican candidate blamed outsiders for the collapse of her campaign. But NY-23 is one of those districts that went for Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008. Those outsiders only pointed out that if elected she would have proven the kind of congressperson that had made the typical American swing voter turn away from the GOP in the first place.
So here is the verdict that this year’s election has already handed down. Establishments in both parties are on notice. The key swing voters of the past half-decade want change. And what the change they have received to date is not change they believe in, from establishments on either side of the aisle.