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Is the Republican Party making a comeback?

The message that the Republican Governors Association was trying to send at  its annual meeting last week wasn't subtle. But talking about a comeback is one thing— actually achieving it is another.
/ Source: NBC News

The message that the Republican Governors Association was trying to send to the donors, party big-wigs and political reporters who attended its annual meeting last week wasn't subtle.

The Republican Party, the RGA boasted, is making a comeback.

They underscored this in a video presentation to attendees. "America’s comeback starts with us," said the narrator in the video. "We are the Republican governors."

There was even a "Comeback Bash" that concluded the meeting.

These kinds of declarations were commonplace. "Next year is going to be a good year for us," said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the RGA.

After the GOP's political setbacks in 2006 and 2008, there is little doubt that the political winds have shifted. Earlier this month, Republicans won the gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia, two states where Republicans hadn't enjoyed much recent success.

What's more, President Barack Obama's poll numbers have fallen back to earth (and his job rating is now below 50 percent, according to the Gallup poll). Public support for his key initiatives — health care and the economic stimulus — is mixed at best. And the unemployment rate now tops 10 percent.

"For the first time since 2004, the playing field has tilted against Democrats," said political analyst Jennifer Duffy, who monitors Senate and gubernatorial races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

But talking about a comeback is one thing; actually achieving it — in next year's midterm elections and beyond — is another.

Indeed, realizing the irony or not, the RGA kicked off its discussion of the upcoming 2010 races here by replaying a recent "Saturday Night Live" skit that parodied the declarations of a GOP comeback after the New Jersey and Virginia contests.

Said the actress pretending to be Fox News' Greta Van Susteren: "It's hard to believe that only one year ago Barack Obama entered the White House, promising a new era of government, and yet, on Tuesday, it seems that that era came to a bad end."

And here was the character playing Fox's Brit Hume: "There are certain indelible moments of triumph in our great nation's history — the Moon landing, V-E Day, the Lewinsky scandal. Tuesday was one of those nights."

Nathan Daschle, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, explains that the GOP victories in New Jersey and Virginia had more to do with history than a Republican comeback.

In fact, the party that controls the White House has lost every Virginia gubernatorial race since 1977 and every New Jersey one since 1989.

"New Jersey and Virginia were about New Jersey and Virginia," he said. "Nothing out of the ordinary has happened here."

The GOP winners in New Jersey and Virginia — Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell — appeared to agree with that assessment during a press conference at the RGA.

"New Jersey issues were the things that drove the race," said Christie, adding that national ones were just "background music."

McDonnell chimed in, "We ran on Virginia issues" — like jobs, transportation, and taxes.

Also, even if the Republican Party has success in next year's midterm elections, that doesn't guarantee a long-term political comeback. On average, a president's party loses approximately 15 to 20 House seats and control of about five governor's mansions during the first midterm cycle of his presidency.

And while some midterm victories have a lasting impact — think 1994 when Republicans took back control of Congress — others turn out to be a footnote in history.

When Ronald Reagan was president in 1982, for example, Republicans lost approximately 20 House seats. But Reagan went on to win re-election in 1984, and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, won the White House four years later.

In addition, the Republican Party overall remains unpopular — even nearly a year after George W. Bush left office. According to last month's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, just 25 percent of Americans have a positive view of the GOP, compared with 46 percent who have a negative view.

By comparison, 42 percent said they had a positive view of the Democratic Party, and 36 said they had a negative one.

And Republicans still have some fundamental weaknesses with young voters and minorities — which might not be problematic for them next year, but very well could be come 2012.

But what encouraged Republicans in this month's New Jersey and Virginia races was the party's performance with independent voters. In both contests, Christie and McDonnell won independents by a 2-to-1 margin.

What's also clear is that the GOP — as it stands right now — has the advantage going into the 2010 midterms.

According to the Cook Political Report’s rankings, Democrats currently hold six of 10 toss-up Senate seats, and 13 of the 16 toss-up House seats — meaning that the midterm battlefield will be fought largely on Democratic turf.

Moreover, most of the vulnerable incumbent governors next year are Democrats (like Colorado’s Bill Ritter, Iowa’s Chet Culver, Ohio’s Ted Strickland).

Yet, as Barbour acknowledged at the RGA meeting, politics can change in the blink of an eye. Still, he noted, “Generally, good gets better and bad gets worse.”

But he also said this: “In politics, nothing is ever as good as it seems, and it is never as bad as it seems.”

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News. NBC’s Ali Weinberg and Bobby Cervantes contributed to this article.