National Politicians Watch Off-Year Elections Closely

Tuesday is Election Day. Among the most-watched races are gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey, as well as a pair of special congressional elections. The off-year elections are being watched by national politicians as a referendum on President Obama and his party.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Long before they had opinion polls, national politicians would carefully watch the off-year elections. Even President Lincoln monitored votes for governor or congressional seats, looking for evidence of his own public support. Today, politicians have polls but will still pay attention to the scattered elections coming this week - and so will we.

We brought in our political brain trust: NPR national political correspondence Mara Liasson and our political editor, Ken Rudin.

Good morning to you both.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Steve.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Ken, we'll start with you. What races are you focusing on?

RUDIN: Well, there's only two races for governor up - in Virginia where Bob McDonnell is the Republican candidate, the former state attorney general. He seems to have a pretty sizeable lead over Creigh Deeds, a state senator, the state, of course, where Barack Obama was the first Democrat to win it for president since 1964.

In New Jersey, a much closer race. Jon Corzine, the governor - the Democratic governor - in a tough economic climate. He's facing Republican former U.S. attorney, Chris Christie. There's also an independent in that race, Chris Daggett, who could be pulling from both candidates.

There's also two congressional races, one a solidly Democrat seat in Northern California. Another, probably more closely watched, a historical Republican seat in Upstate New York. There's also a bunch of big city mayors up, including Michael Bloomberg in New York City.

INSKEEP: Mara Liasson, I want to come back to those governors' races. New Jersey's a state that used to be a swing state. It's been more reliably Democratic. Virginia had been trending more and more Democratic. What does it mean for the man in the White House, President Obama, if Democrats were to lose in those states?

LIASSON: Well, I think it would be a big rebuke to him. Now look, these races are about local issues and individual candidates, but the results are going to be interpreted as a referendum on the Obama presidency. That's one of the reasons that the president has been working so hard, particularly in New Jersey. It's the only one of the governors' races that the White Houses thinks they have a chance to win. He went back again, yesterday, to campaign for Jon Corzine, and he described the race in terms that sounded like he thought it was a referendum. He talked about Corzine as a partner, that he should be reelected so they can continue the work on repairing the economy.

And Virginia, in particular, is a state that, as Ken said, the president turned blue for the first time in more than 40 years in 2008. He spent a lot of time there. I think that if the support of independents drops out for the Democratic candidate, which it seems to be doing, and Obama can't motivate the same voters who came out for him so enthusiastically in 2008, it will be seen as a rebuke to the president.

INSKEEP: Well, just so we're clear, you just gave all the advantages Democrats had going into this campaign in Virginia. But it doesn't sound like you think the White House believes they have a good chance to win there at all.

LIASSON: No. The White House has all but given up on Virginia.

INSKEEP: Let's go to something that was seen as a referendum, not on the president, but on the Republican Party.

Ken Rudin, you mentioned a congressional race in Upstate New York. What's happened there?

RUDIN: Well, that's the 23rd District. It's an open seat. And the Republicans back Dede Scozzafava, who's a 10-year assemblywoman. She's popular there but she also supports abortion rights. She supports gay marriage. She backed the Obama stimulus package. And that's something that many conservatives feel is not indicative of the Republican Party nationally. So if this is painted as a battle between the moderate conservative wings of the Republican Party, that battle is over - the conservatives have won. On Saturday, Dede Scozzafava withdrew from the race. Doug Hoffman, who is a conservative party candidate, had the backing of Club for Growth and Sarah Palin, a lot of national figures.

The National Republican Party clearly wanted Hoffman not Scozzafava. She pulled out of the race on Saturday. And yesterday, she endorsed the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens.

INSKEEP: Wait, wait, wait. Does that mean there is no formal Republican in this race for normally a Republican district and�

RUDIN: No. That's correct. And not only has Abdullah Abdullah pulled out but Dede Scozzafava have pulled out of the race as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: By the way, Abdullah Abdullah was a candidate in Afghanistan�

RUDIN: I'm sorry. Right.

INSKEEP: �not in the 23rd district. Just trying to keep that clear.

So Mara Liasson, what can we learn from races like these?

LIASSON: Well, in the New York congressional race, we can learn what Republicans see as the best path to the future for them, how they should win elections. Should they embrace the conservative activist base of their party and move to the right, or should they look for a different model - the model of Bob McDonnell in Virginia who was also a social conservative but who's been running by not stressing his views on social issues. Instead, he's been talking about transportation, education and jobs.

The other thing that we can learn is whether President Obama is capable of motivating his own voters, the hundreds of thousands of people who voted for the first time in 2008 when he himself is not on the ballot.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's our national political correspondent Mara Liasson. We were also joined by Ken Rudin. Ken, thanks.

KEN RUDIN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's our political editor and author of the Political Junkie blog at npr.org.

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