The Thinker

Election 2009 postmortem: Much ado about nothing

One thing I know: CNN will not be calling me to be a talking head. I would not tell them what they want to hear. For the pundits and prognosticators trying to interpret the tealeaves from last Tuesday’s elections pretty much have it all wrong. The election says nothing about a resurgent Republican Party rising from the ashes. It also says nothing about an emboldened Democratic Party extending its majorities. Trying to read national trends into these few and widely scattered election results is, frankly, much ado about nothing. It’s pointless to even bother. There is no “there” there.

Pundits and prognosticators of course want the results from these scattered elections appear to be more than they are. That works for them. They make their livings through spin. If they wrote columns or got a spot on CNN as a talking head saying that the election really changed nothing and says nothing about how the public is really feeling about Democrats and Republicans, who would invite them back? As for politicians, what else did you expect them to say? Of course Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee is going to crow because the GOP picked up two governorships. Of course, Democratic National Committee Chairman (and my current governor) Tim Kaine is going to point that at the national level Democrats picked up two house seats, including a seat that has been in safe Republican hands since the 19th century. Both are going to claim their party has the momentum.

In Virginia, Governor Elect Bob McDonnell won by double digit margins over the Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds. It is true that when Virginians elect a Democrat for president they tend to pick a Republican for governor shortly thereafter, and visa versa. So what? This election had nothing to do with Virginia’s trends. McDonnell won because Creigh Deeds was a poor candidate and a terrible campaigner. We Virginian Democrats had to sift through three poor offerings and oddly enough, Deeds was the least objectionable. First, there was Terry McAuliffe, a former DNC chair who had zero experience in Virginia politics and whose only expertise was in schmoozing and raising money. Then there was Brian Moran, who stood so far to the left that even I could not vote for him. More importantly, with his stands on the issues there was no chance that he could win a statewide governor’s race in this purple state. Finally, there was Creigh Deeds, a middle of the road Democrat who turned out to be milquetoast and ran one of the worst campaigns in modern Virginia history. He hardly inspired Democrats like me to vote for him and I did so only grudgingly. After all, he spent the last few weeks of the campaign bashing a public health insurance option in the misguided belief this would woo independents, who happen to want a public option.

There was not much there for Democrats to like, so they hardly felt driven to the polls. On the other hand, there was the handsome Bob McDonnell who despite his very conservative leanings pragmatically steered toward the center where the Independents were. He connected with independents with a campaign driven by moderate promises and a no new taxes pledge. It is not surprising then that in my purple state many Democrats stayed home while Independents had every reason to vote for McDonnell. Nor is it surprising that his big win had coattails, and helped Republicans increase their majority in the House of Delegates. As for disgruntlement at Barack Obama, according recent polls, Obama’s approval is at 51% in the state, which is close to the vote he received a year ago from Virginians. In short, the election was about state-issues, not national ones and had nothing to do with feelings about Barack Obama.

In deep blue New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie won because the incumbent John Corazine did not keep his promises. In fact, he broke many of the ones that mattered most to voters. He was to use his Wall Street acumen to solve the state’s budget crisis. Instead, in part to address the economic crisis, he ended up raising taxes and the expected property tax cut never materialized. No wonder voters were pissed. Then there was the minor problem that he carried the stink of corruption wherever he went. Christie too seemed to be emblematic of corruption. However, when an incumbent has approval ratings in the thirties, even in a deep blue state his chances are poor, so Christie won.

The lesson for Democrats from these two gubernatorial races is that if you want to win, you should nominate compelling candidates like Mark Warner and Jim Webb who can appeal to both Democrats generally and Independents specifically. Whoever you nominate should have integrity and not carry the whiff of corruption. State Democratic parties need to do a better job of encouraging good candidates to run. In both New Jersey and Virginia, voters sensed what they were being offered was sweet smelling manure.

On the national level, one should also not read anything into the two pickups made by Democrats in special elections. The seat in California was a given for the Democrats because the district had an eighteen point Democratic registration advantage. The much talked about NY-23 special election was a one of a kind election with dynamics that changed constantly. Arguably, the Glenn Beck wing of the Republican Party shot themselves in the foot by backing a strong conservative in a three-way race. This led the moderate Republican to drop out and in a very unusual move endorse the Blue Dog Democrat instead. While it is true that a Democrat has not held this seat in more than a century, one cannot read that much into this election because of the unique dynamics of this race. After all, it is but one of 435 House seats.

The 2010 elections will likely result in some Republican House and Senate gains, as historically this has been the case when Democrats control the Congress and the White House. It is way too early to say how the election dynamics will unfold. Democrats in Congress can do much now to lessen the likelihood of losses a year from now by passing legislation that Americans want, like health care reform. To maintain their majority, Democratic voters need a reason to feel energized in 2010. Meaningful health care legislation, climate legislation that truly addresses the global climate crisis, and significant steps to reduce unemployment will probably help. The 2010 elections are no more likely to be a referendum on Barack Obama than the 2009 elections were. As is always the case, these races will reflect primarily local issues. When fielding new candidates, Democrats should promote and fund candidates that will speak to the needs of ordinary people. In 2008, voters voted for change. They still want change. They are just having a hard time generating enthusiasm for politicians wedded to special interests.

As for the 2009 elections, the sampling size was too small to draw any reasonable inferences about national trends. Those who do either have an agenda or they are deluding themselves.


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