Thursday, November 05, 2009


Political Mayhem Thursday: The off-off year elections

On Tuesday, Republicans won two impressive victories, capturing the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey. I can't say I followed those races closely, but I do think the New Jersey outcome is very interesting, in that the Republicans defeated a well-financed incumbent, Jon Corzine. They effectively attacked the biggest weakness of the incumbent, the high taxes paid by citizens of New Jersey.

So, the pundits all wonder, what do these outcomes "mean?" Well, at the simplest and most important level, it means that the majority of voters in those states favored Republicans for the state's highest office, which is especially intriguing in heavily Democratic New Jersey.

Does it mean anything beyond that?

A lot of us R's would love to characterize these two wins a referendum on Obama. But I've read that Obama still enjoys a 57% approval rating in VA, even as his chosen candidate for governor was being trounced there. He has similar numbers in New Jersey, and his 3 campaign trips there didn't move the needle one blip for Corzine. So I think it's more accurate to read these wins as some combination of 1) Good ground game by the Republicans, something we excel at as the non-incumbent party, 2) Local issues coming down favorable for us (i.e. New Jersey's atrocious tax and business policies--seriously, look this up, its ridiculous), and 3) Republicans in heavily Democrat states offer what the majority of Americans want right now--conservative economic policies and center-right views on social issues.

Many of my compatriots disagree, especially the Tea Party crowd (which incidentally I, ahem, Tea Partied with today downtown), but I that the NJ and VA candidates have the winning formula. Strong fiscal conservatism, and social issue stances that reflect the district/state/whatever you're running in. Not more church lady talk, or more rants about how awesome everything used to be back when nobody was gay or Mexican. This has proven true in countless races before, even if the talk show crowd would like you to believe it hasn't, and it proved true again last night in the NY23 special election. That's the one I find most interesting, which of course is why we're talking about it over at The Davis Firm today.
It is also bar results mayhem Thursday. Good luck to everyone!
There was a good article by Anna Quindlen in Newsweek a week or so ago, in which she observed that Americans can be bold and visionary (or at least, swept away by an appealing campaign) in electing a president, but the reality of every-day politics is a lot more cautious and down to earth. I suppose this is what happened in these two gubernatorial elections.

Virginia is really borderline politically anyway . . . Democrats have to go WAY to the middle to get elected to statewide office there. Republicans ten years ago didn't have to do that as much, but McDonnell, Cuccinnelli, et al had to do that this time. When I was watching the VA General Assembly in 2000 - 2003, they were unabashedly conservative, in every way. McDonnell played that down a lot this time, which I guess says something about the residual effects of Obama's win and of four years of a Democratic governor.

I don't see these two elections as a huge referendum on Obama, though.
As a semi-active Virginia Republican, I agree that this was not a referendum on Obama. The Democratic candidate was terrible here in the Commonwealth and probably would have lost to a stack of bricks.

More importantly, the last time Viriginians elected a Governor from the same party as the sitting President was 1973! Any Democrat was going to have a tough roe to hoe.

To his credit, Gov. Elect McDonnell ran a positive, issues-based campaign, as did the candidates for Lt. Gov. and Attorney General. The Democrats ran negative campaigns against McDonnell and also the GOP AG candidate (who is definitely VERY conservative), but never explained their own proposals or platforms in a positive way.

Yes, negative ads work, but only as part of a grander strategy. One must be FOR something. That, in my view, was one of the McCain campaign's biggest failings last year. They ran AGAINST Obama, not for McCain. Same could be said for John Kerry in 2004, Bob Dole in 1996 and countless other forgotten defeated candidates.

When McDonnell got attacked over things he wrote in 1990 (not that long ago, thank you very much!), he explained his views, answered question after question, but stayed on message. He and his campaign were focused and disciplined. Not unlike Obama's effort.

To me, someone who doesn't get rattled in a campaign is less likely to get rattled as an elected official!
As for New Jersey, despite the fact that its classified as a "red state," remember for the last 30 years, its mostly had Republican Governors. McGreevey and Corzine were the exceptions. Christie Todd Whitman served two terms and before that Tom Kean was Governor for 12 or 16 years.

Corzine came off as an arrogant rich guy; and Jesse's right, the tax policies there are all screwed up. Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware were eating NJ's lunch.
A Republican won during an economic crisis in a Southern State? Color me surprised.

Well, not really.

As for what this means in a wider sense, pundits on the opposition party will claim it means America has rejected the policies of the party in power, whereas the party in power will repeat staid old lines about local issues. It's what press secretaries always do. They did it in 1994, in 2001, in 2006, and probably will do it in the future. Pundits don't report facts; they don't give analysis. They vomit forth propaganda meant to give the impression that amorphous public opinion favors one side or the other without any room for nuance or subtlety.

What is interesting to note is the redefinition of political parties being made. The Republicans in particular face a split between the party lifers, mostly moderate fiscal conservatives who tend to back the status quo on many social issues, but aren't willing to honestly antagonize groups for big "moral stances", and the right-wing ideologues who either embrace radical capitalist ideals and/or extremely conservative religious/social beliefs.

Consider the Texas governor's race, between a "moderate" Kay Bailey Hutchison (moderate only by Texas standards) and Rick "Goofball McGoodhair" Perry, whose shameless pandering to the far-right libertarian/evangelical movement makes me weep in shame (though I expect no less from Aggies). In any other state in the Union, I'd say big-business, wealthy, old-money Republicans would run these upstart bunker-dwellers out of the tent and try to forget their association... but in Texas, it looks like the bunker dwellers are taking over (witness the appointment of the new head of the Texas GOP from the far-right Texas Eagle Forum). I do think New York's 23rd Dist. race exemplifies this split in the party as well.

I think McDonnell aptly tried to distance himself from his ideological screed of a thesis paper written in 1990... not so far that it didn't invigorate the misogynists, homophobes and theocrats that would love to see one of their own in power, but far enough that moderate conservatives who care more about their pocket books than what genitals their neighbor's lover has felt OK with voting for him. Masterfully done, Virginia Republicans.

To a lesser degree, Democrats must also wrestle with this problem. Southern Democrats in particular, by moving to block reforms popular with most other Democrats (like health care reform or marriage equality) are drawing a line in the sand between working class-minded economic liberals who still cling to Midwestern or Southern social morality. The need to appease these Democrats is taking a toll on a very ideological White House. That ideology made Obama popular with many progressives, myself included, who felt that the days of Clintonian compromises to satisfy Southern white Democrats needed to end.

They really haven't, and the lack of Democratic support behind the No on Question 1 in Maine initiative rankles me. It's time for Democrats to abandon the lukewarm within their own party. If they really want to energize the next generation, and especially to win over leftist converts to their cause (because most of us will suspend our economic ideals in order to achieve badly-needed social reforms), they've got to do more. The hate-crimes bill is revolutionary in its own way, but what about suspect class protections for gender, or addressing the problem of rape in the military, not to mention universal health care and protecting the open Internet from corporate influence? What about living wages?

I hope that both parties come out of this stronger; I think, however, the possibility for reactionary regressivism back into the tired old forms of the 1980s and 90s is more likely at this point.
I think I'd look at this much more simply: this is a statistically insignificant sample size. Yes: both sides are working to spin it as they want, but we're talking about two governors' races, a referendum vote in Maine, and two big House seats (that I have heard about). This is all local, no generalizability.

Let's wait till next year for the "referendum" on Obama and Congress' work.

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