Wednesday, November 04, 2009

What the November 2009 Elections Mean

Had a bunch of elections around the country, and your interpretation of them seems to vary greatly depending on which party you favor. The GOP points to Bob McConnell's overwhelming victory in Virginia as evidence that Virginia is no longer 'purple', and to Chris Christie's upset win over Jon Corzine to take the governorship of New Jersey as a clear shot across the bow of what the Democrats viewed after November 2008 as a permanent change in electoral politics.

Democrats, like Nancy Pelosi and David Axelrod, believe that the more significant race was in the 23rd Congressional District of New York, where Democratic candidate Bill Owens edged out Conservative Party (yes, they have that in New York, which sounds like a reason to invoke the Endangered Species Act) candidate Doug Hoffman. This sort of ignores the fact that there actually was a GOP candidate, Dede Scozzafava, a state assemblyperson who dropped out of the race after being pummelled in the polls, despite RNC backing and who repaid her supporters in the Republican Party (including Newt Gingrich) by endorsing the Democrat rather than Hoffman. There is an meme floating around that the NY-23 seat hadn't been held by a Democrat since before the Civil War, but apparently people who believe that meme have no access to Wikipedia, the last Democrat to hold that seat was elected in 1991, and the seat has changed hands between the parties eight times in the last century.

In terms of the number of voters, overwhelmingly the votes went GOP on the whole, particularly in Virginia where McConnell stomped Creigh Deeds by a 20% vote margin. Considering that McConnell won the State Attorney General race against Deeds by a fraction of a percent in 2008, the players didn't change but the score most certainly did. Chris Christie was outspent 3:1 by Jon Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs partner and very wealthy man who spent heavily in New Jersey media, which means buying lots of air time in NYC and Philadelphia.

The lessons I take away from these results are as follows:

1. It's Still The Economy, Stupid.

Times are tough. When times are tough, voters tend to punish the party in power. The vote totals in favor of the GOP are similar to those in the 1993 by-elections, which implies that 2010 could end up much like the highly-disruptive 1994 election that swept the GOP into power. This is not an endorsement of the GOP, simply an observation that if the DNC believes that running against George W. Bush will work in 2010, I believe they will be rather rudely surprised, assuming the economy does not improve dramatically. Nobody is buying the 3.5% GDP bump. Unemployment and possible future unemployment is what motivated the voters this time around.

Continuing to trumpet a temporary bump in GDP in the face of continued job losses is a net loser for the White House. Compounding this with "jobs created or saved" numbers that not even the network newscasts will report with a straight face is telling the American people that "All is Well" when they clearly know all is NOT well. A scene from Animal House shows how I believe the White House's economic numbers are being received (note: the White House is played by Kevin Bacon):

2. With Enough GOP Help, The Democrats Can Win Seats In Purple Districts.

You would think that this would have been evident from the 2008 election, but it does not hurt to repeat it. John McCain was nominated from a dispirited field of GOP candidates, flirted with selecting a Democrat for a VP and refused to fight his opponent. Bob McConnell and Chris Christie ran disciplined races against Democratic opponents who had numerous campaign visits from the President -- and won.

Dede Scozzafava was the choice of GOP party people in NY-23, not the product of a contested primary. Her policy positions were far to the left of any mainstream Republican to the point where she was endorsed by ACORN, the SEIU and Markos Mouslitas of the Daily Kos. She made Arlen Specter look like Tom DeLay in terms of conservatism.

Even after getting millions of dollars and campaign volunteers from the National Republican Congressional Committee, she turned around and planted the knife squarely in the back of the party by endorsing not Doug Hoffman, who would have caucused with the GOP, but Bill Owens, whose policy positions were only a little to the right of hers. She quit the Saturday before the race because she was destined to finish a distant third no matter what, but given the small margin between Owens and Hoffman it's likely that her Dead Hand endorsement of Owens lost the district for the party she claimed to support. With enough help from incompetent Republicans, Democrats can eke out a victory.

3. Third Parties Feel Good, But Don't Win.

You know that guy, the one who drives a Peugeot just to be different? The person listens to African pop not because he likes it, but because it's different and allows everyone to know they're different when it leaks out their earbuds? Yeah, those people are probably third party voters, and while they're interesting and funky and unique, they're not going to win elections. It's about being pure to themselves and standing out more than getting anything done. Libertarian party, Green party, Peace party -- they're not unAmerican in the sense of treasonous, they are unAmerican in the sense that they're satisfied with being a stumbling block and not actually winning.

Doug Hoffman did not get Republican party support, but he did pick up endorsements from Fred Thompson, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee, as well as Glenn Beck. Doug seemed like a really nice guy in the interviews I saw, but somewhat unpolished and not ready for prime time. He did spectacularly well for a third party candidate, but -- and it's an important but -- he still lost. The way he came to be nominated over Scozzafava is part of the story here, and since Owens stands for re-election in 2010 I would love to see Doug lead a combined GOP-Conservative Party ticket in that election after he beats all comers in a primary.

The take-home lesson here is not that we need a Tea Party of staunch fiscal conservatives to spend themselves on futile, uncoordinated and underfunded attempts to win office. I sympathize with these people, I think their hearts are in the right place, but their small-government Constitution-quoting butts belong in the Republican Party. Those folks were sidelined within the GOP sometime around 2000, which was a cardinal mistake on the part of the GOP. Folks like Senator Tom Coburn need to go to the Tea Party folks, and the Tea Party people need to get into the Big Tent. Scozzafavas we don't need, you have to draw the line somewhere and she's farther outside the GOP perimeter than even Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe tend to wander.

The GOP needs the passion of the Tea Party people, and emphasis on small government and fiscal responsibility is the shortest path to rehabilitating the GOP brand.

4. Democrats In Red States And Districts Should Be Hearing Footsteps.

The Dems in Virginia didn't get beat, they got annihilated. Bill Owens in New York is not the newest progressive in Congress, he's the newest Blue Dog, and considering that he almost got beat by an almost-competent Doug Hoffman, I don't see him attending strategy sessions with the far-left Dems from deep blue districts any time soon. There are 83 representatives and 20 senators from states that went for McCain in 2008, and all of these people have good reason to point to the blood on the walls in the Democratic HQs in Virginia and tell their leadership that they are NOT voting for any tax and spend packages, like healthcare. Nancy Pelosi may have picked up another 'blue' seat in the House, but IMO the election results cost her many times that on specific issues from people in her own party.

The counter to the revolt of the Democrats in the House who are looking at serious reelection challenges is for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to say, "Yes, you're right. It looks like a bad district in which to be a Democrat that you have there. If you vote with us, we might give you enough support for you to win in 2010, but if you don't -- good luck." Any party only needs 218 to hold a majority in the House, and Blue Dogs who stand a good chance of being replaced by Republicans in any event may find their votes and themselves not only not needed, but not wanted. It's a dangerous counter for the DCCC to play, but it's entirely possible they will invoke the 'death penalty' to get their signature legislative packages across. After all, they believe that PelosiCare, Cap & Trade and Card Check are what we need, even if we're not smart enough to see it for ourselves.

5. Barack Obama Looks Good In His New Suits, But They Don't Have Tails.

The spin on The One's involvment in NJ and VA is "He wasn't on the ticket, this has nothing to do with him." One Democratic representative said, "He hasn't even been in Virginia," which would have been true at the time if she had added, "in the last four days." Obama campaigned heavily for Corzine, Corzine completely outspent Christie, and Christie still won. McConnell, well, he demolished Creigh Deeds. He was expected to win by 15, but he won by 20. Ouch.

The 2010 elections will hinge on the President's ability to effectively campaign for Democrats. His appearances, his charisma, his connection to young and minority voters were deciding factors in 2008, and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate are great examples of what having a powerful draw at the top of the ticket can do for a national party, only -- he's not on the ticket in 2010, either. It's debatable whether two state governor elections have anything to say about national politics, but if they have anything to say it's nothing that the Democrats whose names appear below the President/Vice-President block want to hear. Given that Barack Obama will be the lead singer in the DNC's national efforts in 2010, he needs to be able to do better. Any thought that the DNC had created a new grand coalition was cracked by Virginia going so solidly Republican and shattered by reliably-blue New Jersey repudiating Jon Corzine.

The "sea change" that President Obama was supposed to have led lasted all of a year -- a year in which the deficit tripled, more people lost jobs than in the year before and the Stimulus, well, didn't. The President's job is secure through 2012, but the Congress is definitely in play. The President's best hope is that the economy comes back, Iran signs a deal and China keeps its appetite for our debt for another 12 months, because if things continue as they have the voters will usher the Democrats to the door.

That's what I get out of this. Your thoughts?