A Sweet Sweep, And Less Sweet Surprise, For GOP : It's All Politics Tuesday's Republican victories in governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia were no surprise, but nonetheless welcomed by a party that had little to celebrate a year ago. Harder to assess: A Democratic win of a New York House seat held by the GO...
NPR logo A Sweet Sweep, And Less Sweet Surprise, For GOP

A Sweet Sweep, And Less Sweet Surprise, For GOP

Just one year after Barack Obama rewrote the American political rulebook, the old rules were back in New Jersey and Virginia in off-year elections held Tuesday.

Both states elected Republican governors, and the GOP swept the top offices in Virginia. The 2008 coalition of Democratic voters, bolstered by high turnout among younger voters and people of color, shrank back to historic norms, while independents who had been drawn to the Obama message of change a year ago turned back to the party of his opposition. That has been the historical pattern in both states one year after new presidents have taken office.

Late on election night, the big Republican wins in the governors' races had to share some of the media focus when two surprises emerged from New York.

The first came in New York City, where incumbent independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg was re-elected with just 51 percent of the vote after spending roughly $100 million of his own money on his campaign. Polls had shown him well ahead.

The other, and potentially more consequential, was the election of state Rep. Bill Owens, a Democrat, to a vacant congressional seat upstate. The district, the state's largest and most rural, had not elected a representative who was not a Republican since the 1800s. But a tumultuous split in the GOP had propelled the candidate on the Conservative Party line, Doug Hoffman, to a late lead in the polls, making him the darling of Tea Party activists from coast to coast.

For GOP, A Sweet, But Not Shocking, Sweep

In the first hours after the polls closed, the dominant story was the failure of the president to rescue his party's struggling candidates in the nation's 11th and 12th most populous states. Republicans won both governorships decisively, and while neither win was a shock, the sweep was sweet indeed for conservatives who had little to celebrate one year ago.

Perhaps the most meaningful aspect of these wins was the breaking of the Democratic string of statewide victories in both states. No Republican had won a statewide office in a dozen years in New Jersey, and Democrats had won the last presidential race, the last two Senate races and the last two gubernatorial races in Virginia.

That kind of reversal of fortune bodes well for the "out party" in the midterm elections coming one year from now. If states where the Obama revolution rolled up big numbers in 2008 are going to be competitive again, Republicans will come back with a vengeance after big setbacks in 2006 and 2008 cost them control of both chambers of Congress.

The Candidates Matter, Too

At the same time, it was a stretch to call Tuesday a rebuke to the president himself. Exit polls in Virginia and New Jersey found approval for the president at levels in the low to high 50s, which is about where it is nationally. Most polled said their votes on Tuesday were not about Obama, and those who said they were voting on Obama were split pro and con.

Some might ask why either state's election for governor had been in doubt at all in this recession year.

The Democratic nominee in Virginia, a state senator named R. Creigh Deeds, burst on the scene in the primary as the lone centrist alternative to Terry McAuliffe, a first-time candidate but longtime fundraiser and operative for former President Bill Clinton and others. The primary became something of a referendum on McAuliffe, a relatively recent arrival in the Old Dominion who struck many as presumptuous.

Once nominated, Deeds never did find a positive personal theme for his campaign. Despairing of his chances of reassembling the Obama coalition from 2008, he ran more as an out-of-state Democrat, far removed from the state's high-growth, vote-rich regions of Northern Virginia and the Atlantic Coast.

His main thrust was that his Republican rival, state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, had written an awful screed against women in the workplace decades ago while a student at televangelist Pat Robertson's Regent University. It took McDonnell some time to put that episode behind him, but once he had, the race was over. After holding the White House at arm's length, Deeds welcomed the president in the closing days as his fate seemed certain.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the extraordinary feats of levitation by which the unpopular and unloved incumbent Jon Corzine had stayed in the race failed him on Election Day. Although polls showed the race too close to call, it was resolved in relatively short order.

On the numbers, not many weeks ago, Corzine looked likely to lose to a blank slate. The Republicans nominated an uninspiring and flawed candidate in Chris Christie, and the voters flirted for a time with a third-party option, Chris Daggett. In the end, Daggett faded to single-digit irrelevance, and the anti-Corzine vote came home to Christie.

In Upstate New York, A Welcome Surprise For Democrats

Both the Virginia and New Jersey outcomes suggested that the party in power, nationally and in the state capital, had a lot of explaining to do about the recession and other woes. It isn't enough to recall where the economy and other matters stood a year ago. Political memories can be short, especially when there's no appealing lead candidate to distract the mind.

Of Tuesday's marquee races, the strangest and most difficult to assess was the special election held in the 23rd Congressional District in upstate New York.

Just before the balloting began, polls indicated that Conservative Party candidate Hoffman had surged into a clear lead over both Democrat Owens and the official Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, who had dropped out over the campaign's final weekend and endorsed Owens.

Hoffman's victory was to be the crown on all these more predictable achievements, demonstrating the power of the Republican Party's insurgent right.

But in the end, his own residence outside the district, and the dictates of too many high-profile activists from far outside the district (read Alaska, Texas), aroused an instinctual reaction amid the Adirondacks. The local papers generally lined up behind Owens, a homegrown former Air Force captain, and this is a part of the world where people still read their local paper.