A "trifecta" of Democratic defeats on Tuesday could deliver a serious body blow to President Barack Obama's transformative plans for America, even lobbing a monkey wrench into his push for public-option healthcare reform, commentators warn.
Polls show Democrats trailing in three key races being touted as political bellwethers. They trail by double digits in the Virginia governor race; Republican candidate Doug Hoffman holds a 5-point advantage in the topsy-turvy District 23 House election in upstate New York; and Republican gubernatorial challenger Chris Christie is nursing a narrow 2-point lead over incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey.
NBC Chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd, appearing on MSNBC's “Morning Joe” program Monday, predicted that heavy Democratic losses Tuesday would "scare the bejesus" out of congressional Democrats. He added it would "send a shiver up the spines of Democrats all around the country."
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The irony of the looming bellwethers: Circumstances in all three races should have worked to Democrats' advantage.
Obama carried all three states one year ago. He won New York by 25 points, New Jersey by 16 points, and Virginia by 6 points.
None of the races has gone smoothly for Republicans. In the District 23 race, GOP prospects were complicated when party insiders handpicked left-leaning Dede Scozzafava as their candidate. Faced with plummeting poll numbers, Scozzafava dropped out of the race in its final week and threw her support to Democrat Bill Owens.
In Virginia, The Washington Post, which has strong circulation in Republican Bob McDonnell's base in Northern Virginia, ran several reports on McDonnell's master's thesis, which stated the women's movement had been "detrimental" to families. The Post also endorsed the Democratic candidate, R. Creigh Deeds.
In New Jersey, Corzine is believed to be hanging on — thanks to a strong third-party candidacy from Independent Chris Daggett. Daggett is believed to be siphoning off anti-Corzine votes from Republican Christie, and New Jersey Republicans charged Monday that Democrats are actually running automated "robocalls" urging Christie voters to switch their support to Daggett.
After casting his vote at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Daggett announced that the outcome is "in the hands of independents."
The latest Quinnipiac poll shows Christie leading Corzine 42 percent to 40 percent, with Daggett holding on to 12 percent. Christie's lead is within the poll's 2.5 percent margin of error.
“It’s going to be a cliffhanger,” Rutgers University political science professor Ross Baker told Bloomberg.com.
Corzine reportedly has spent $10 million more than Christie on TV advertising in the race. In 2008, half a million new voters in New Jersey registered as Democrats, in the run-up to Obama's election. The outcome now probably will hinge on the political "ground game," as both candidates make last-minute appearances around the state and work feverishly to get their supporters to the polls. The race is so close that it may be some time before the winner is known.
If Democrats are unable to grab at least one of the three big races, Obama may face increasingly difficult political headwinds in Washington.
"If the GOP wins all three key races up for grabs, that’s what I’d call a trend," Larry J. Sabato, author of “The Year of Obama,” told Newsmax. "Off-off-year elections are not a referendum on the incumbent president — that’s why we have presidential re-elections. But it’s also wrong to say Obama will not have been a factor in the Democratic losses. His policies have clearly energized Republicans to turn out in large numbers, relative to Democrats.”
Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, sees a longer-term impact, too: Recruiting top-notch GOP candidates for next year’s midterm elections will be much easier if Republicans fare well on Tuesday.
"Good candidates are more likely to run if they sense there’s a wind at their backs," Sabato said.
Obama is expected to distance himself from any setbacks — his aides are already taking shots at Deeds' campaign in Virginia, for example. But the fact remains that he personally campaigned for all three Democrats.
He focused especially on staving off a Corzine defeat in New Jersey, where it's been nearly eight years since there was a Republican governor.
On Sunday, Obama campaigned frenetically on Corzine's behalf, joining him at five campaign events. In Camden, the president employed the familiar tactic of deflecting responsibility onto the previous administration. But this time he went further, suggesting it was the Bush administration, not Corzine, who was to blame for New Jersey's high property taxes and sluggish economy.
“For the past four years," Obama told a Camden crowd of about 3,500, "you’ve had an honorable man at the helm of this state. It wasn’t a consequence of Obama’s policies or Corzine’s policies that we went into this hole. There seems to be some selective memory going on here.”
Corzine is also blanketing the state with a last-minute, automatic "robocall" that features Obama.
"I want to apologize for disturbing you," the president's voice states in the message. "But there's an important election in New Jersey this coming Tuesday. Last year, we started a movement for change. Now we need to keep it going. That's why I'm asking you to get behind Gov. Jon Corzine. Together we can fix our schools, improve healthcare, and turnaround the economy so it works for all Americans. So please get out and vote on Tuesday. And vote for my friend, and your governor, Jon Corzine. Thanks for listening."
Given the administration's intense focus on Corzine's campaign, Obama's presidential coattails may take a clipping if Christie holds on to win.
"Certainly it's going to be a reflection on him and his policies," former GOP presidential contender Fred Thompson told “Fox & Friends” on Monday.
Thompson added that a Hoffman victory over Owens in New York Congressional District 23 would be particularly influential, because it's a congressional race.
"And before long, Doug Hoffman … will be voting on [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi's proposals, on healthcare for example," Thompson said. "So yeah, I think it's an indication the American people in large numbers are fed up."
Even mainstream media and progressive commentators envision trouble on the horizon for Obama's agenda – such as public-option healthcare reform and energy cap and taxes – if Democrats are unable to beat back the small-government backlash to salvage at least one of Tuesday's major races.
"To me the most interesting question is, 'Can Obama deliver people who voted for him for other candidates?'" New York Times chief national political correspondent Adam Nagourney told NBC's Andrea Mitchell on Tuesday on MSNBC. "It's important not just in terms of midterms, that's a whole other thing. I think it's going to matter as he goes into the legislative session asking Democratic congressmen, members of congress, to cast tough votes on healthcare, but also cap-and-trade.
Added Nagourney: "People are going to be less likely, I think, to listen to him, if he's unable to say ' Well, I'll come into your district and help you,' and they turn around and go: 'Well, Corzine lost, and you spent two days in New Jersey.' So that's where I think the real rub is in this race."
Mitchell concurred. "I think you're exactly right," she replied. "It hurts with blue dog Democrats and certainly others, some of the conservatives and moderate Democrats in the Senate he's trying to rally on healthcare."
On Tuesday morning, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty weighed in, telling MSNBC viewers that he expects Tuesday's results will have a substantial impact.
"I think it's definitely going to send a shot across the bow of the Obama administration, the Democratic-controlled Congress," Pawlenty said. "You'll get more nervousness because of that. But the bottom line, this is not only about Republicans. It's about Independents realizing that this administration, this Congress, are putting the accelerator on the path toward bankruptcy for this country. They don't like the federalization of everything, and they're reacting to that."
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