Opinion: Inside Tuesday’s election results: The lessons and warnings for Obama and Republicans


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A few things to take away from Tuesday’s election results:

Barack Obama’s got no political coattails if Barack Obama’s not on the ballot:

The Democratic president invested himself and his prestige (and his vice president) in gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, where close ally Tim Kaine is the departing governor and has a second full-time job as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Didn’t help. (Will this hurt Kaine’s chances of being Obama’s VP pick in 2012?)


Both Democrats still lost, especially Virginia Democrat Creigh Deeds. Virginians returned to the GOP column in a big way, electing Bob McDonnell as governor plus a Republican lieutenant governor and a Republican attorney general for only the second time. And the first GOP governor in 12 years.

New Jersey voters love their Democrats until they don’t. As they did in the past when embracing Christie Todd Whitman and Tom Kean, Garden State voters threw out an incumbent Democrat (multimillionaire marathoner Jon Corzine, who became so desperate late that he put out an ad mocking his Republican opponent’s corpulence).

New Jerseyans chose instead a former federal prosecutor, Republican Chris Christie (see photo above), proving in the process that it’s not over till the fat guy sings.

Interesting historical anecdote that sounds strangely familiar for some reason: The last time....

...voters in both those states did this same dual political overthrow simultaneously was 1993 after the first 10 months of a new Democratic president named Bill Clinton, who was pushing a massive healthcare reform plan.

Anyone remember what the outcome of that off-year harbinger was? The Republican revolution of the 1994 midterm elections, when the GOP seized both houses of Congress.

Republicans still don’t really have anything approaching a national leader. So how’d they pull off those two major victories? Answer: By not being Democratic incumbents in tough economic times.


True, McDonnell, a social conservative, ran a very disciplined campaign harping on economic issues. But a major theme in Tuesday’s results was unhappiness with the folks in power, with exit polls showing the top concerns were the economy and taxes.

So how much of this is tied to Obama? Well, he had to campaign for his party’s candidates. But the president (and Vice President Joe Biden) really campaigned for them.

The president of the United States, for example, did five events for Corzine, talking of him as a partner in the Senate and in the White House. And both Obama and the candidates praised the president’s economic stimulus package and healthcare reforms.

The result: Both Corzine and Deeds ran way behind Obama’s 2008 percentages. Obama got 52% of Virginia’s vote last year; Deeds got 38% Tuesday. Obama won 57% in New Jersey; Corzine got about 45%.

Well aware of the approaching bad-news wave, Obama holed up Tuesday night in the White House, where aides claimed he didn’t watch the returns. Right, and the Cubs still have a chance of pulling out a World Series victory this week.

The president will burst forth from the residence today for a flying visit to Wisconsin to attempt to change the topic of conversation as quickly as possible to, say, education reform.

Any good news for Obama? His nifty maneuver to remove unbeatable Republican Rep. John McHugh from New York’s 23d District by naming him secretary of the Army worked. A Democrat (Bill Owens) won that seat (by beating the Conservative Party’s Doug Hoffman) for the first time since the late 1800s. That pads Nancy Pelosi‘s overwhelming House margin by one for at least a year. Watch for a more polished Hoffman to retry next year.

What’s this say about next year’s midterm elections? A long time to go, but it’s definitely uphill for Obama.

Historically, the White House party loses about 17 House seats in the first midterm. Only two modern era presidents haven’t: FDR in 1934 fighting the Great Depression and George W. Bush in 2002 in the afterglow of his 9/11 popularity.

With the current job situation unlikely to turn around quickly, will voters be as angry at incumbents 363 days from now?

What to watch for now? Two things:

There are 83 congressional Democrats from traditionally Republican districts that Obama carried in 2008.

Witnessing voters’ volatile fury over incumbents’ spending, deficits and taxes Tuesday, how will these representatives from shaky districts respond to the administration’s ambitious spending plans in the next year, especially healthcare reform, now apparently postponed into the midterm election year?

Now we know why Obama so desperately wanted that oft-postponed healthcare vote before the August recess.

Finally, watch the smoldering national grass-roots rebellion among Republicans, including but not limited to tea partyers and Ron Paulites. The situation in New York’s 23rd District was partly unique to N.Y. rules, but it did show the power and intense determination of local conservatives to push their ideological purification efforts against the party’s disconnected Washington establishment, even if such a holy fight means that a Democrat wins, as he did in the 23rd.

Democrats, on the other hand, should be wary of enjoying that infighting too much. A similar intra-GOP struggle led to Barry Goldwater‘s electoral annihilation in 1984. But just 48 months later, the once-written-off but reenergized Republicans won the presidency, the first of five GOP victories in the next six presidential elections.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Top photo: Christie and family. Credit: Jeff Zelevansky / Reuters; center photo: McDonnell. Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images; lower photo:Obama and Corzine. Credit: Getty Images