The 2009 gubernatorial elections provided a much-needed momentum boost for Republicans after back-to-back election cycle drubbings.
But the GOP victories in New Jersey and Virginia don’t necessarily tell us all that much about how the party will fare in next year’s midterm elections: Gubernatorial races generally say less about the national dynamic than they do local issues, and that's certainly true this year.
In New Jersey, Chris Christie demonstrated that under the right circumstances the GOP can be successful in a blue state. He pulled off the win by capitalizing on the state’s troubled economic environment.
New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the country, and the ousted millionaire Jon Corzine did not lower them as he promised. The state’s unemployment rate is the second highest in the Northeast, and like almost every other state in the country, the Garden State had a major budget crisis.
Corzine needed everything to go right — and a lot of luck — in this campaign, and it almost did.
First, there was his opponent, Christie, who was almost done in by his inability to impress with his not-ready-for-prime-time persona, some strategic messaging errors and lack of substantive, detailed plans — particularly on how he would reduce those property taxes. (Restoring rebates is not enough.)
That opened the door for the rise of an independent candidate, Chris Daggett, who began to pull votes from the Republican. But the Republican Governors Association deserves a lot of credit for driving up Daggett’s negatives in the last two weeks of the campaign. The RGA deftly turned the race into a choice between the Republican (who happens to be some guy named Christie) or the fictitious Corzine-Daggett ticket.
Democrats would have preferred Corzine drop out much earlier. The White House could read the polls and his abysmal approval rating. But there was no real alternative, and Corzine — with his gobs of cash — wasn't beholden to the state party machine. Many New Jersey Democratic Party faithful pined for the return of former Gov. Dick Codey, who enjoyed high approvals before deciding not to run for re-election after taking over for Jim McGreevey.
Lack of Democratic voter intensity
Virginia’s gubernatorial race was for an open seat — as it incredibly is every four years — and it was an uphill battle for the Democrats from the beginning.
Democrat Creigh Deeds was not a solid candidate, but there were few, if any, alternatives. (How do you think Terry McAuliffe would have fared?) Also, as many analysts have noted, the party that controls the White House hasn’t won the off-year gubernatorial election in Virginia since 1977 — that’s nine straight elections.
Why is that? Because the opposition is always more amped up the year after a new president takes office. The wounds of loss for the opposition are fresh.
This was the first opportunity for conservatives and Republicans to express their frustration with being out of power in Washington, D.C. That frustration, of course, is amplified by the fact that Democrats are at 60 in the Senate and have a sweeping majority in the House, in addition to controlling the presidency.
That said, Democrats should heed the warnings in both Virginia and New Jersey. Independents moved overwhelmingly in this election to the Republicans and young voters, who came out in droves for candidate Barack Obama, didn't this time around.
In New York's 23rd congressional district special election, Democrats pulled off quite the coup. It’s the second competitive special election in Upstate New York to go to the Democrats since Obama became president. Both times Republicans predicted the comeback would start there (see: Steele, Michael). Both times they were wrong.
But maybe the result in NY-23 isn’t all that surprising.
Upstate New Yorkers don't like carpetbaggers. The Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, didn't live in the district, became the national candidate, and didn't have a command of local issues. The local candidate who best understood that district — Democrat Bill Owens — won.
Also remember that in the other upstate race, NY-20, Republican Jim Tedisco didn't live in the district, either. And Republicans lost that one as well to the lesser-known venture capitalist Scott Murphy. There were, however, other factors in that race: Democrats controlled the seat for the past two cycles and Obama’s approval rating was even higher then.
Last night's results in NY-23 leave the GOP almost completely out of power in New York State. It now controls just two of New York's 29 congressional districts — one in upstate and one out in Long Island. And, since 2006, Republicans have lost six seats in what was traditionally conservative Upstate.
That's on top of the GOP holding zero seats in all of New England.
Yet, don't expect Sarah Palin, Dick Armey, the Club for (Democratic?) Growth or the rest of the Tea Partiers to wrap up their crumpets and go home.
No. Quite the opposite. They are, in fact, emboldened.
"The race for New York’s 23rd District is not over, just postponed until 2010," Palin wrote on her Facebook page, her preferred medium for expressing her views. "The issues of this election have always centered on the economy — on the need for fiscal restraint, smaller government, and policies that encourage jobs. In 2010, these issues will be even more crucial to the electorate. I commend Doug Hoffman and all the other under-dog candidates who have the courage to put themselves out there and run against the odds."
So, for those that thought NY-23 was the cleansing. Think again.
Will conservatives organize to boldly challenge GOP candidates in 2010?