Republican victories in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races showcased voter anger with the Democrats’ handling of the economy and underscored their weakness when Barack Obama is not at the top of the ticket.
Democrats were quick to deflect Republican claims the elections were a referendum on the Obama presidency and his policies or that the nation would experience a replay of 1994 next year. They noted Republicans lost the governorships in Virginia and New Jersey in 2001, but Republicans nonetheless increased their congressional majorities during the 2002 midterm elections.
In Virginia, former Attorney General Robert McDonnell defeated his lackluster Democratic rival Creigh Deeds by approximately a 59-41 margin. And in New Jersey, Chris Christie defeated incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine.
McDonnell did especially well in suburban areas of Virginia that went heavily for Obama, and according to exit polls the Republican won 53 percent of the female vote.
Christie’s victory in New Jersey is especially compelling considering Corzine outspent his Republican rival by nearly a 2-1 margin, and Democrats have an overwhelming voter registration advantage. The Republican won in Bergen County, located outside New York, in an area that likewise voted for Obama last year.
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“It reflects what is going on locally and the situation that voters find themselves in the states. It is not a referendum on Obama,” Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said Tuesday night while appearing on CNN’s "Situation Room" with Wolf Blitzer. “Independents want change, and they are the majority of the electorate.”
Brazile said the party in power typically gets hammered in the polls when the economy is doing poorly and when unemployment is high as it currently is.
“Republicans are more gassed up,” Democratic strategist James Carville said on "Larry King Live."
Carville said Democratic losses could have a negative impact on the president’s legislative agenda because it could make centrist Democrats who are up for re-election during next year’s midterms more reluctant to vote for healthcare reform.
“The Republicans were definitely more jacked up in Virginia, but we have a year to go until the midterm elections,” he said.
Democrats also sought to push aside the loss in Virginia by blaming Deeds for running a lackluster campaign and for pulling away from President Obama. In September, Deeds said he wasn’t “an Obama Democrat.”
Economist and Newsmax contributor Ben Stein told Larry King Deeds inability to attract the same voters who came out in droves for Barack Obama last year shows the president failed to create a movement behind the Democratic Party. Instead,
the loss shows the Democrats have serious issues they need to examine going into the midterm election when Obama will not be on the ballot to attract voters.
Independents favored the Republican candidates in both Virginia and New Jersey, which undermined the credibility of Democratic contentions Republicans could not win Independent voters. According to Washington Post exit polls, Independents formed the margin of victory in Virginia with 64 percent of Independent men and 57 percent of Independent women voting for McDonnell.
“Voters are voting against the way the country is going,” CNN contributor David Gergen said.
Maryland Congressman Christopher Van Hollen, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sought to downplay the significance of Republican showings earlier in the evening before the polls closed by pointing to the GOP’s low poll numbers.
“This is not 1994 all over again,” Van Hollen said. “Support for Republicans is the lowest it has ever been, and it is even lower than it was a year ago when Obama won.”
Republican strategist Mary Matalin sought to deflect Democratic efforts to highlight the Republican Party’s low approval numbers by contending the races show a strong preference for conservative policies rather than liberal ones among Independents.
“It’s not just happening in Virginia, but the Democrats have lost Independents,” Matalin said. “Although they don’t identify themselves as Republicans, they are philosophically conservative.”
Matalin said ideology counts far more to Independent voters than party label.
“Independents had a massive shift to the Republicans tonight,” former Bush press secretary Ari Fleisher said.
Fleischer said the GOP’s ability to attract Independents in overwhelming numbers reinforces the Republicans’ status as a big-tent party.
The GOP victories stand as a black mark against Obama and the Democrats, which they will have to grapple with going into the 2010 midterms, especially as they move healthcare and other agenda items.
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