Video: Decision 2009 bodes ill for Dems

  1. Closed captioning of: Decision 2009 bodes ill for Dems

    >>> these days. "nightly news" begins now.

    >>> good evening. a year ago we were talking about a sea change in american politics . tonight we're reporting a small change which could also be an ominous development for the-year-old obama administration. republicans were elected governor last night in two important states. but other than preferring both candidates to the democrats were voters across the country last night trying to say something else? there is evidence of an angry electorate out there. and we begin here tonight with our political director and chief white house correspondent, chuck todd . hey, chuck, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian . you know, in the days leading up to this election the white house tried to downplay its significance. but when the results came in, the white house suddenly responded quickly, as if to say message received. more than any other issue the economy was what was in front of voters' minds yesterday.

    >> thank you.

    >> reporter: 85% of virginia voters and 90% of new jersey voters said they were worried about the direction of the nation's economy. it's what propelled republicans bob mcdonnell and chris christie to their victories in both states.

    >> everybody is worried about the economy. of course they are. we're in the worst economy since the great depression. we're far better off than we were in january, when people were talking about another great depression.

    >> reporter: a day after watching his party suffer its first bad november election night since 2004 , the president got nostalgic for his own election a year ago.

    >> election day was a day of hope. it was a day of possibility. but it was also a sobering one because we knew even then that we faced an array of challenges that would test us as a country.

    >> reporter: to democrats tuesday's losses were sobering reminders of some of the challenges facing them as they attempt to stay in power. republicans won the independent vote by a wide margin. 33 points in virginia and 30 in new jersey. the president won those same independent voters in those same states in 2008 . then there was the issue of turn jowl, particularly in virginia , where a powerful coalition of young voters and african-americans had helped propel mr. obama to the white house .

    >> they didn't participate in these state elections , and i think that made a difference.

    >> thank you.

    >> reporter: republicans seized on their victories as a much-needed boost in confidence.

    >> as recently as a couple of months ago republicans were written off. many of you were writing our epitaph.

    >> reporter: but the head of the republican party stopped short of calling tuesday a referendum on the president.

    >> i don't think it's so much of a referendum on the president. it certainly is i think a check point on the policies.

    >> reporter: believe it or not, brian , for 2010 this white house and david axelrod said to me, look, we want 2010 to be a referendum on the policies and on the president, and they think that could make a difference. it's actually ripped from the bush playbook of 2002 . brian ?

    >> to think we have another year until we're at this again. chuck todd on the white house lawn tonight. chuck, thanks.

updated 11/4/2009 8:11:01 PM ET 2009-11-05T01:11:01

The White House distanced itself Wednesday from Democratic losses in two states, saying the races for governor hinged on local issues and were not a referendum on President Barack Obama.

The Republican victories Tuesday in Virginia and New Jersey energized the opposition and are a setback for Obama as he struggles to overhaul the U.S. health care system, win passage of climate change legislation, and build political support for his handling of the war in Afghanistan.

They could also be ominous for Democrats ahead of next year's midterm elections, when a third of the Senate, all of the House of Representatives and most governorships are on the ballot.

But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that voters in both states went to the polls to work through "very local issues that didn't involve the president."

The presidential spokesman said that voters were concerned about the economy. He said "I don't think the president needed an election or an exit poll to come to that conclusion."

Tuesday's elections marked some good news for Republicans, who lost control of Congress in 2006 and lost the White House last year. It will help them raise money and recruit candidates to prepare for next year's election.

GOP finds its voice?
Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele said the victories demonstrated "a transcendent party" that was on the move again.

Steele told CBS's "The Early Show" that he believes the Republican Party has "really found its voice again" after sustaining damaging losses last year.

In Virginia, Bob McDonnell, a former conservative state attorney general, easily defeated R. Creigh Deeds to become the state's first Republican governor in eight years. The state, once a Republican stronghold, had elected Democratic senators in 2006 and 2008. Last year, Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1964. McDonnell won with nearly 59 percent of the vote. Video: Happy GOP boss

McDonnell's Republican supporters were delirious. A victory party crowd screamed, waved signs and chanted "Go, Bob, go!" when he was declared the victor.

In a news conference on Wednesday, McDonnell announced his transition team, led by fellow Republican Bill Boling, who was re-elected lieutenant governor on Tuesday. McDonnell was also asked about the national implications of his victory.

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“We made a decision early on after talking to people all around the state that what Virginians are interested in are jobs and the economy, kitchen table issues,” he said. “I can say that what we found is that people are less interested in partisanship than in results."

In the traditionally Democratic state of New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie, a former corruption-busting federal prosecutor, narrowly defeated Gov. Jon Corzine, a billionaire former Wall Street executive, by a margin of 49 percent to 45 percent. Independent candidate Chris Daggett had about 6 percent.

In both states, independent voters who had been crucial to Obama's victory last year voted overwhelmingly for the Republican candidate.

Democrats took some solace by winning the closely watched special election for a Republican-held vacant seat in the 23rd Congressional District in New York state that highlighted fissures between moderates and conservatives in Republican ranks.

Long before Tuesday's vote, the White House rejected suggestions that the gubernatorial elections would be tantamount to referendums on Obama. Indeed, the votes took place in just two of the 50 U.S. states. Local issues and personalities dominated campaigns.

Still, exit polls showed more than four in 10 voters in Virginia said their view of Obama factored into their choice. Those voters roughly split between expressing support and opposition for the president. The Obama factor was similar in New Jersey, though there were slightly more voters who said the president did not factor into their choice.

Video: Axelrod reacts to Tuesday’s elections Obama had inserted himself into the races, campaigning for both Corzine and Deeds and appearing in their advertisements. But Obama's popularity has faded some since the early days of the presidency and clearly wasn't strong enough to make a difference in the campaigns.

That point will not be lost on moderate Democrats seeking re-election in conservative districts and states. They may be reluctant to back Obama on issues like climate change and health care if it means antagonizing local voters — especially if Obama lacks the political heft to carry them through the next election.

Interviews with voters leaving polling stations in both Virginia and New Jersey were filled with reasons for Democrats to be concerned and for Republicans to be optimistic, particularly about independents, who often determine the outcomes of U.S. elections.

Independents turn back on Dems
Independents played a critical role in Obama's victory last year. But after more than a year of recession, they fled from Democrats in the two states, where the economy trumped all other issues.

Associated Press exit polls showed that nearly a third of voters in Virginia described themselves as independents, and nearly as many in New Jersey did. They preferred McDonnell by almost a 2-1 margin over Deeds in Virginia, and Christie over Corzine by a similar margin.

Last year, independents split between Obama and Republican John McCain in both states.

Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine said the shift among independent voters was difficult to interpret.

"We're going to have to scratch our heads a little bit on that one," he told CNN. He added that Obama continues to enjoy even stronger support among independent voters than he has in the past.

In both states, the surveys also suggested the Democrats had difficulty turning out their base, including the large numbers of first-time minority and youth voters whom Obama attracted.

In other races Tuesday, voters in the northeastern state of Maine rejected a state law that would allow same-sex couples to wed. If supporters had prevailed, it would have marked the first time that the electorate in any state endorsed gay marriage.

With 87 percent of the precincts reporting, gay-marriage foes had 53 percent of the vote.

A number of cities selected mayors. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg won a third term as New York mayor in a closer-than-expected race against a Democratic challenger who stoked voter resentment over the way the incumbent changed the city's term-limits law so he could stay in office.

With all precincts reporting, Bloomberg defeated city comptroller William Thompson Jr. 51 percent to 46 percent.

Bloomberg called it a "hard-fought victory in a very difficult year" and promised that New Yorkers "ain't seen nothing yet" from him.

"I'm committed to working twice as hard in the next four years as I did in the past eight," Bloomberg said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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