Off-year elections can be notoriously unreliable as predictors of the future, but as a window on how the political landscape may have changed in the year since President Obama won the White House, Tuesday's Republican victories in Virginia and New Jersey delivered clear warnings for the Democrats.
But the Republicans' celebration was marred by the surprise loss of a House seat in upstate New York that had been in GOP hands for more than a century. The race that underscored the consequences of the ideological warfare that now grips the party and threatens its ability to rebuild itself as a broad-based coalition.
Neither gubernatorial election amounted to a referendum on the president, but the changing shape of the electorate in both states and the shifts among key constituencies revealed cracks in the Obama 2008 faction and demonstrated that, at this point, Republicans have the more energized constituency heading into next year's midterm elections.
The most significant change came among independent voters, who solidly backed Democrats in 2006 and 2008 but moved decisively to the Republicans on Tuesday, according to exit polls. In Virginia, independents strongly supported Republican Robert F. McDonnell in his victory over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, while in New Jersey, they supported Republican Chris Christie in his win over Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine.
For months, polls have shown that independents were increasingly disaffected with some of Obama's domestic policies. They have expressed reservations about the president's health-care efforts and have shown concerns about the growth in government spending and the federal deficit under his leadership.
Tuesday's elections provided the first tangible evidence that Republicans can win their support with the right kind of candidates and the right messages. That is an ominous development for Democrats if it continues unabated into next year. But Republicans could squander that opportunity if they demand candidates who are too conservative to appeal to the middle.
McDonnell pitched his campaign toward the center of the electorate, offering Republicans a model for how to reach independents. But the uproar in New York's 23rd Congressional District, where a populist conservative uprising drove the hand-picked Republican nominee out of the race, showed that ideological warfare still threatens the party.
Age gap reemerges
Beyond the shift among independents, there were other worrisome indicators that the coalition Obama attracted last year is a shrunken force, at least for the time being. One question all year has been whether, without Obama on the ballot, Democrats could attract the new voters who went to the polls in 2008. In New Jersey and Virginia, the answer was no.
Many of the young voters who came out in big numbers in 2008 and strongly backed Obama stayed home Tuesday. In Virginia, voters under age 30 accounted for 10 percent of the electorate, half the share they represented last year. In New Jersey, their turnout also was halved.
Meanwhile, the percentage of voters age 65 and older jumped significantly in Virginia and rose measurably in New Jersey. In both states, these voters tilted slightly more Republican than they did a year ago.
A surge among black voters was another key to Obama's victory in Virginia last year. They were no less Democratic in their balloting Tuesday but turned out in somewhat smaller numbers.
Democrats also saw erosion compared with last year among suburban voters, voters without college degrees and those with family incomes below $50,000. Suburban voters had narrowly backed Obama in Virginia but went solidly for McDonnell on Tuesday; in New Jersey they had voted even more strongly for Obama but were going narrowly for Christie. Non-college graduates voted in roughly the same percentages as a year ago but were decisively more Republican this year -- a roughly 30-point shift in Virginia and about a 15-point shift in New Jersey.
Another major shift came on the economy. Polls have shown through much of the year that Americans blame former president George W. Bush more than Obama for the recession. But if the economic collapse was a powerful force working for Obama and the Democrats last year, it clearly helped Republicans on Tuesday.
Just over half the electorate in both states said they were very worried about the economy, according to the exit polls, percentages almost identical to a year ago. But last year Obama carried those voters by 59 to 40 percent in Virginia and by 61 to 38 percent in New Jersey. On Tuesday, McDonnell won three in four of those voters, while Christie won about three in five.
A blip or a warning for 2010?
White House senior adviser David Axelrod said Tuesday's races were in no way a reflection of public opinion about the president or his agenda. "Whatever's driving these voters, it wasn't attitudes toward the president," he said, noting that local issues and attitudes toward the candidates on the ballots were the major influences.
Axelrod warned against extrapolating into the future the shift among independents. He said he believed that many people who called themselves Republicans in the past now call themselves independents but are still voting for Republican candidates. "I don't think they portend long-term trends," he said.
He said the only race with real national implications was the congressional contest in Upstate New York. "It's more significant because of the message it sends to moderate Republicans that there's no room at the inn," he said.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said he agreed that Tuesday's races were not a referendum on the president. But he argued that Obama's policies were creating anxiety among voters that was helping Republican candidates.
"It's not about the president personally. The president's not unpopular. Americans want our presidents to succeed. But the president's policies are very unpopular, and they are hurting Democrats in Virginia, New Jersey, New York," Barbour said.
The party holding the White House has now lost nine consecutive gubernatorial elections in Virginia. In addition, Deeds proved to be a weak and ineffective candidate and got into a public spat with the White House by saying that Obama's policies were hurting him in the race. But McDonnell's big victory Tuesday was nonetheless a setback for the White House.
Obama was the first Democratic nominee to win Virginia since 1964, and in many ways, the state was emblematic of his "expand the map" electoral strategy nationally and the new coalition he attracted. Obama had other important victories -- in Colorado, North Carolina, Indiana -- but few were as satisfying to his team as that in Virginia.
On Tuesday, Virginia moved back in the direction of Republicans, a reminder that the political landscape is far more fluid than it appeared to be a year ago -- and a challenge for the White House and the Democrats as they look toward 2010.
A Year After Dousing, Republicans’ Hope Rekindled
The Republican victories in the races for New Jersey and Virginia governors put the party in a stronger position to turn back the political wave President Obama unleashed last year, setting the stage for Republicans to raise money, recruit candidates and ride the excitement of an energized base as the party heads into next year’s midterm elections.
But a Democratic victory in an upstate New York Congressional district — after an ideologically pitched battle between moderates and conservatives over how best to lead Republicans back to power — signaled that the Republican Party faces continued upheaval. The Democratic victory came over a conservative candidate who, with the enthusiastic backing of national conservative leaders and well-financed grass-roots organizations, had forced out a Republican candidate who supported abortion rights and gay rights.
The results in the New Jersey and Virginia races underscored the difficulties Mr. Obama is having transforming his historic victory a year ago into either a sustained electoral advantage for Democrats or a commanding ideological position over conservatives in legislative battles.
The coalition that swept him into the White House was absent on Tuesday night, with evidence that the young, African-American and first-time voters who supported Mr. Obama failed to turn out to help the Democrats Mr. Obama had campaigned for: Gov. Jon S. Corzine in New Jersey and R. Creigh Deeds in Virginia. (There are no exit polls in the upstate Congressional race to provide demographic information on the electoral outcome.)
Independent voters who had flocked to Mr. Obama in Virginia and New Jersey last year shifted on Tuesday to the Republican candidates in both states, Christopher J. Christie in New Jersey and Robert F. McDonnell in Virginia, according to exit polls in both states. That is a swing that will certainly be noted by moderate Congressional Democrats facing re-election next year, who may now be more reluctant to support Mr. Obama on tough votes in Congress.
Still, even as Republicans celebrated their first wisp of good news in more than a year, they confronted results likely to fuel a continuation of the arguments that have torn the party with increased intensity in recent days.
That upstate race drew national attention after conservatives pushed aside the Republican Party and rallied around their preferred candidate, Douglas L. Hoffman on the Conservative Party ticket, asserting that the party should back only fervent conservatives, rather than accept candidates who veered from party dogma on issues like abortion and financial restraint.
“Conservatives can win when they emphasize the right things and don’t allow their message to get co-opted,” said Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “The Democrats and some of their friends in the media attempt to paint all conservatives as fire-breathing cavemen.”
The victory of the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens, over Mr. Hoffman clearly surprised Republican leaders and offered one bit of good news to the White House, which put a last-minute effort into trying to ensure a Democratic victory there.
“If there is a big backlash against Democrats, why did we just pick up a Democrat in a district that hasn’t elected a Democrat in 150 years?” asked David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “The real story here is, I think this thing is ambiguous. Yes, Democrats lost in New Jersey and Virginia, but if you look at those races, the factors were locals.”
In those two states, which, in their size and diversity, might offer a better testing ground for a party looking for new approaches, Mr. Christie and Mr. McDonnell won after decidedly playing down their conservative views on social issues. Their relentless focus on jobs and the economy — voters in both states listed those as their top issues in exit polls —appeared to blunt the effort of Democrats to undercut the candidates by pointing to their history of conservatism on social issues.
That was particularly the case with Mr. McDonnell, whose long-established conservative record on issues like abortion and gay rights apparently gave him enough leeway with conservative voters to avoid any engagement on these issues.
“He focused on the issues that are on people’s minds: jobs, taxes,” said Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, the head of the Republican Governors Association. “I don’t think there are a lot of governors who are more conservative than I am. But I try to run campaigns on what people are interested in.”
The Republican candidate in the New York race, Dede Scozzafava, suspended her campaign over the weekend, pointing to diminishing contributions and polls suggesting she was heading to a defeat. Within an hour, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, who had strongly backed Ms. Scozzafava, announced his support for Mr. Hoffman.
The critical question after this setback is whether the conservative groups who had clearly signaled that they intended to press their advantage and challenge other Republican candidates they considered too moderate would now have the impetus or support to continue down that road.
The immediate focus of those potential challenges is in Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist is facing a primary challenge from the right in a race for a United States Senate seat, and Illinois, where Representative Mark Steven Kirk is considering running for Senate. When Chris Chocola, the president of Club for Growth, a group that advocates conservative economic policies, was asked on ABC News if Mr. Kirk was the kind of candidate his group could support in a primary, he responded, “Probably not.”
The results suggested the limits of the political influence of Mr. Obama, who campaigned intensively for Mr. Corzine and reluctantly for Mr. Deeds. Mr. Obama remains popular at least in New Jersey, the exit polls showed, but that did not do much good for the state’s soon-to-be-former governor. That is not the kind of lesson a president wants as he heads into tough battles on issues like health care and climate control.
For Republicans, the results on Tuesday were welcome news after one of the party’s toughest years. But the victories occurred on a relatively small playing ground. And in an off-year election, far fewer voters turn out than in a general election.
The results will certainly lift the Republican Party for some period. Yet history suggests they will not necessarily predict what will happen in the far more consequential races next year, when 39 governors’ seats, 38 Senate seats and the entire House is up for re-election.
Indeed, Mr. Axelrod acknowledged that Mr. Obama’s supporters had not shown up in New Jersey and Virginia, but he said he did not believe that meant the end of the Obama coalition.
“That doesn’t mean they won’t come out for us,” he said. “I think they’ll come out for national races. But this wasn’t a national race.”