Not a Referendum

 

It’s too late to do any good, I suppose, but could we please stop acting like it was some sort of surprise that the Republicans won governorships in Virginia and (especially) New Jersey this week?

Yes, it is significant that the G.O.P., which was unable to post any meaningful victories in 2006 and 2008, finally managed to have a good night. And the party’s successes on Tuesday will very likely be followed by more – many more, perhaps – in next year’s midterm elections.

But here’s the thing: It was obvious (or at least it should have been obvious) that this was coming from the moment Barack Obama was elected last year. Declarations that this represents a rebuke of Obama or some reawakening of the Republican Party are just silly. The G.O.P.’s gains on Tuesday were all but preordained – just as their inevitable gains next year are.

The key to understanding this week’s results is to understand why the Democrats enjoyed so much success in ’06 and ’08: an epically brutal anti-Republican atmosphere created by a toxic mix of war, recession, Bush ineptitude, and Republican congressional scandals. The climate was so poisonous for the G.O.P. that not a single Democratic incumbent in Senate, House or gubernatorial contest was defeated for re-election in ’06, and only a handful of House members went down in ’08.

The horrible state of the G.O.P. brand – and the voting public’s fixation on it – insulated Democrats who, under more normal circumstances, would never have won. And with Obama’s election last year (along with a Democratic House and Senate), that protection went out the window.

Virginia is a perfect illustration of this. It’s true that, demographically, the state has become more favorable for Democrats in recent years, with its population center inching ever northward. But the party’s mid- to late-decade success – victories for Tim Kaine in 2005, Jim Webb in ’06 and Obama last year (along with Mark Warner for the Senate) – can be more fairly attributed to a crucial segment of swing voters who began reflexively resisting the G.O.P. label sometime around Katrina. 

But voters’ memories are notoriously short; they live only in the present. So with Democrats assuming complete control of Washington after the ’08 election, those swing voters in Virginia – who had tended to favor the G.O.P. before the bottom fell out for Bush – were ready to give a statewide Republican candidate a fair hearing again.

That, plus the fact that off-year and midterm electorates never attract the young voters who padded the Democrats’ margin in ’08, made Republican Bob McDonnell the front-runner in Virginia. Add in the fact that McDonnell ran a far sharper, more focused and more media-savvy campaign than Democrat Creigh Deeds and the final 20-point margin isn’t much of a surprise.

The story is even more dramatic in New Jersey, where swing voters began rebelling against the national G.O.P. label long before ’06. The key date in modern New Jersey political history is November 8, 1994, when Newt Gingrich and his fellow right-wing revolutionaries won control of the House – fundamentally altering the average New Jersey voter’s image of the national Republican Party.

From ’94 on, the Democrats’ New Jersey strategy was absurdly easy: run against the Crazy Conservative who were running Washington – Gingrich at first, George W. Bush and his cronies later. They couldn’t lose. State Democrats put up one slimy candidate after another – think Robert Torricelli and Jim McGreevey – but it didn’t matter: swing voters weren’t going to support any statewide nominee with an R after his name.

The G.O.P.’s only New Jersey win after ’94 was Christie Whitman’s jarringly narrow (a one-point squeaker over McGreevey) re-election win in 1997. Otherwise, Republicans couldn’t break out of the low-to-mid 40 percent range on Election Day. This is all the more striking when you consider that from 1968 to 1992, Republicans carried six of seven presidential elections in the state; since ’94, they haven’t won one – and their average margin of defeat has been 14 points.

This is why Republican Chris Christie’s triumph this past Tuesday could be seen coming 12 months ago. The ’08 election completely locked Republicans out of power in Washington for the first time since ’94 – meaning that, for the first time since ’94, those present-dwelling Jersey swing voters were willing to look beyond party affiliation.

This spelled doom for Jon Corzine, whose popularity and political skills had always been overestimated (by Democrats and Republicans) and who had utterly failed in his first term had been marked by embarrassing failures – which were compounded by his hideous communication skills.

Had John McCain somehow defeated Obama in ’08, Corzine could easily have survived in ’09. But without a Republican White House or Congress, he couldn’t conjure the same helpful bogeymen that McGreevey and Torricelli and their ilk had been able to. (Not that Corzine didn’t try to; it’s just that Christie’s status as a Bush fund-raiser didn’t have the same sting with Bush off the stage.) Stripped of this protection, Corzine had nothing left to save him. Voters widely disliked him, associated him with no significant achievements, and directed their economic anxieties at him. There wasn’t much he could do about it.

Nor was there anything that Obama could do about it. Sure, he tried to rescue Corzine with some late campaign swings, which the media has dutifully played up in Tuesday’s aftermath. But the media (and the Obama White House, for that matter) should know better: mass popularity can’t be transferred from one politician to another.

No one ever seems to learn this lesson, but there’s only one meaningful example of a popular politician weighing in on a major race and pushing his candidate over the top: Rudy Giuliani with his post-9/11 television blitz for Michael Bloomberg.  In other words, only under extremely rare circumstances (a traumatizing terrorist attack, in Rudy’s case) can a politician who is not on the ballot swing a major race. It’s understandable why Republicans would play up Obama’s New Jersey visits; it makes for good spin. But they were never going to move voters.

We can expect a lot more New Jerseys and Virginias in next year’s midterms. Deficient, baggage-carrying Democratic candidates who would have survived in the ’06 and ’08 climate won’t be able to in ’10 – simply because swing voters across the country will no longer be using the election to send a message to the G.O.P.

Exhibit A: Chris Dodd, whose closeness to the financial services industry has placed his political career in jeopardy. Had Dodd been on the ballot in blue state Connecticut in ’06 or ’08, he would probably have survived, insulated by his state’s unwillingness to send more Republicans to Congress. Not so in ’10. Dodd is probably a goner next year (even though he’ll spend millions trying to save himself.)

Or look to New Hampshire, the Virginia of New England: long a Republican bastion, but one that dramatically flipped to the Democrats over the last two elections. With Bush and the G.O.P. Congress a thing of the past, the G.O.P. is now well-positioned to hang on to the Senate seat that Judd Gregg is vacating. In ’06 or ’08, Republicans would undoubtedly have lost this race. But not in ’10. 

So it will go in Senate, House and gubernatorial contests across America next year. The electorate will be smaller, older, and more conservative than it was in ’08. And the voters who decide elections will be far more open to supporting Republican candidates than they have in the past. And to the extent they want to send a message about the economy (remember: unemployment could still be at, or over, 10 percent next fall), voters will take it out on the party that control Washington.

This doesn’t mean a political tsunami on the scale of 1994. But it does mean that Republicans will gain seats – and that the best Democrats can hope for is to contain the damage. There really isn’t much more they can do. This is how mid-term elections go – especially when your party’s strength in Congress has been artificially inflated by two consecutive landslide elections.

So let’s not act surprised when Republicans have a very good night next November. And more importantly, let’s not act like the Republicans did anything to deserve it. So far, they have behaved just like the Democrats did in the early days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency: oblivious to the need to redefine their image and eager to believe the country’s inevitable midterm rejection of the White House’s party marks a popular re-embrace of their philosophy.

The Democrats of Reagan’s era found how foolish this was. After a strong ’82 midterm, the economy rebounded and voters – surprise, surprise – returned to Reagan, who won 49 states by asking Americans in 1984: “Why would we ever want to go back?”

In the same way, the Republicans of 2009 and 2010 are set to lose by winning. Sure, they’ll pick up seats next year. They pretty much have to. But when the economy comes back in 2011 or so, look out.

More from Steve Kornacki:

How NY-23 Can Change the Obama Narrative 

Take It from Someone Who Knows Lieberman: He’s Gone for Good

How Bill Owens Spoiled a Republican Narrative

Not a Referendum