Reading The 2009 Election

[ Posted Thursday, November 5th, 2009 – 15:42 UTC ]

It's been a busy week for this column so far, what with the monthly Obama Poll Watch column on Monday, and the one-year retrospective on Obama yesterday. So we haven't had time until now to adequately examine the election results from this Tuesday. Rolling up our proverbial sleeves (Full disclosure: Living in California, as this column does, we are wearing a T-shirt today and don't really have long sleeves to roll up), let us dive in to reading 2009's off-off-year elections, and make a few reckless predictions about the future, shall we?

The two prevailing views so far seem to be: "Good news for Republicans!" and, alternatively, "Good news for Democrats!" It is possible that neither are true, and yet neither entirely false. There was certainly some interesting news, but it's tough to read amongst all the spin.

The first lesson is for Democrats: run better candidates, and you will have a better chance of winning. The Democrat running for governor in Virginia was almost universally panned as a terrible campaigner, which certainly contributed to his loss there. But Virginia is a purple state, not a blue state. Oh, sure, it has trended blue in the past few years, but there's still a core red underlying this, meaning it is still firmly in the swing state category (if that isn't somehow oxymoronic). And the big difference between last year (when Virginia went for Obama) and this year was the motivation among the voters on both sides. The motivation among Democrats simply wasn't there. It was among Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters. They got more people out to the polls -- always a tough task in these off-year elections -- and they had the better candidate, so they won.

The second lesson is for both parties, even though they already know it: when you introduce a third party to the mix, anything can happen. The New Jersey governor's race, and the New York 23rd House district both were influenced (with different outcomes) by the presence of a strong third party in the race. These uncertainties can provide some unexpected results (see: Bill Clinton, 1992 election). In New Jersey, it's tough to say that the outcome wouldn't have been similar without the third-party candidate in the race, because the current governor is not well-liked, and his re-election may not have been in the cards even in a two-way race with the Republican. The third-party candidate there may have siphoned off votes from both sides, in other words, but who can really tell?

The situation in upstate New York was the only true bright spot in the election for Democrats. There, a hard-right candidate ran on a third-party ticket, because they don't have party primaries up there apparently -- just the old fashioned system of the party bigwigs announcing a candidate. The candidate the GOP put forth was seen as way too moderate by the hard right, and they lined up behind the third-party guy. At the very last minute, the Republican candidate pulled out of the race, and threw her support behind the Democrat. The Democrat won, narrowly, in a district that has been sending Republicans to Congress since the Civil War.

But I fear most people are missing the subtleties in these election results. Republicans are overjoyed at winning New Jersey and Virginia, and pooh-pooh what happened in New York. Democrats are doing exactly the opposite, and thanking all that's holy that they pulled out one win Tuesday. Both miss some important points.

Starting in New York, although this was an internecine battle in the Republican Party which could have big consequences next year (more on that in a minute), it was also a highly unusual one. Democrats should not get complacent or smug by thinking: "when Republicans tear into each other, we can swoop in and take the district!" It turned out that way this time, but this time was highly unusual. A major-party candidate pulling out of a race is highly unusual (if not downright unheard-of) in most three-party elections, to begin with. In most places, these fights take place in primaries. If the Republicans had had a primary in NY-23, and the hard rightie won, who's to say he wouldn't have also won against the Democrat in the general election? He only lost by three points. His candidacy was a bit unusual as well, starting very late and getting a massive amount of attention from big-name Republicans and right-wing commentators on the national scene. This is something Republicans are mostly ignoring at their peril in their understanding of the NY-23 race. Locals sometimes resent the heck out of people from out of town coming in to their turf and telling them what to think and how to vote. This backlash, against all the bigtime Republican glitterati who overwhelmed this race in rural, upstate New York, probably will not be measured by the pollsters, so the lesson may be lost on Republicans.

The real question for Republicans next year is whether the Tea Partiers will accept defeat in the primaries, or whether they will launch their own third-party bids instead. Again, more on that in a moment.

One more subtlety which cannot be accurately measured is the "stay-at-home" vote. Republicans are going to be fired up next year. Will Democrats? Being fired up is what got Barack Obama elected, and it was noticeably absent in the New Jersey and Virginia races. But no polls are taken of people who just stayed at home and didn't vote -- which was a lot of Democrats and Democratically-leaning independents. So we just don't know why they stayed home, and whether they'll stay home next year or not. If I was the Democratic National Committee, I would immediately put a poll in the field of people who previously voted Democratic and stayed home this time around, because I think those people need to be heard from loud and clear, or else the Democrats are going to find themselves in trouble next year at this time.

The final result from Tuesday that deserves mention is the Maine gay marriage referendum. Gay rights advocates lost yet another one, a body blow after losing Proposition 8 in California last year. I talked to a retired woman in Maine recently, and although a very liberal Democrat on most things, she said that initially she was against gay marriage. Gay civil unions were fine with her, but the use of the word "marriage" bothered her. But then the onslaught of ads took their toll. She told me she voted for gay marriage in the end, precisely because the ads from the anti side were so odious. The gay rights groups, interestingly enough, had learned a big lesson from California, where their ads were lackluster and did not respond to charges from the other side. In Maine, pretty much exactly the same ads ran from the anti side, but everyone seems to agree that the pro-gay-marriage ads were a lot better, a lot more in tune with the local voters, and much better at countering the other side's message. So it was even more disappointing to see it lose, but the tide truly is on their side, so it should be seen as just another setback to overcome.

Looking toward next year, the biggest question for Republicans will be whether moderates can win their own primary challenges from the hard right, and will the hard right accept defeat in the primaries, or will it splinter into a third-party push in the general election?

There are three very interesting Senate races which are shaping up to be crucial indicators of the direction of the Republican Party in the future. Because, while the NY-23 result was indeed somewhat of an aberration, this battle for the heart and soul of the party is nowhere near over yet.

The first, and possibly the most interesting, of these three is in the Florida Senate race next year. The "heir apparent" was supposed to be Governor Charlie Crist, who is generally well-liked in the state and is fairly moderate as Republicans go. He was supposed to skate to the nomination. Enter Marco Rubio, hard-right challenger. Also, putting a very interesting spin on the race, a Latino. I wrote about this race months ago, and I still think it will be the most interesting one to watch next year. If Rubio beats Crist in the primary, will Rubio be defeated by the Democrat? If Crist beats Rubio, will Rubio mount a third-party run? Stay tuned....

The next interesting race is a struggle over which Republican is going to challenge California Senator Barbara Boxer. Once again, there is a "moderate" ("establishment" would be far more accurate) candidate from the corporate world, Carly Fiorina, and a much-further-right challenger, Chuck DeVore. Fiorina has never held office, but she ingratiated herself with the McCain campaign last year and has decided to throw her hat in the ring. The conventional wisdom, for what it's worth, is that she would have the best chance against Boxer. Boxer would likely breeze to re-election over the hard-right guy in this very blue state, since the only Republicans who win statewide office here have to be seen as moderates to even have a chance. A third-party run here is not likely, due to the extremely high cost of mounting a serious effort.

And the third interesting race is taking place in Kentucky, between the Republican Party's hand-picked candidate Trey Grayson, and Rand Paul. That's "Paul," as in: "my father is Ron Paul." The Pauliacs (Paulites?) have certainly shown they can raise money on the internet, which means Paul actually has a decent shot at winning the primary -- or even mounting a third-party bid in the general. Salon had a good article on this race today, for those interested in the details.

Will NY-23 turn out to be prophetic for the Republicans next year? Possibly, but perhaps not as either side expects. The prophetic part may be the third-party nature of the race. The relative rarity of the Republican dropping out at the last second will likely not happen, should this take place in a Senate race next year. Meaning we could wind up with some three-way Senate contests next November. The Tea Partiers are certainly fired up. They believe in their view of the political landscape with a passion. They may not accept primary defeat, and instead opt for open revolt in the general election. They have some very well-funded groups behind this idea.

This outcome, I have to say, must look pretty good to Democrats about now. Facing a divided opposition would be a political gift for them, it is true. But Democrats can only get elected if they get their own voters to the polls. Democratic voters went to the polls in 2008 with excitement. They did not do so in 2009. There is only one answer for Democrats in Congress currently: produce. Give Democratic voters a reason to put you back in charge. Now is not the time to timidly cower and delay passing your agenda. To get your base excited again, you've got to give them something to get excited about.


-- Chris Weigant


2 Comments on “Reading The 2009 Election”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    Barring any catastrophic event (a 9/11 or Katrina) or flare-up of combat overseas, the mid-term elections will hinge on one thing and one thing only.


    If unemployment is still above 10% (likely) and still climbing (possibly) then you can bet that the midterms of 1994 will seem subtle and inconsequential by comparison to the midterms of 2010.

    Remember, you heard it here first.. :D


  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    I'm starting here with catching up on some old comments. See today's article (11/12), where I largely agree with you, although I think the "climbing/falling" part of it is going to be more important than the "above 10%" part. I could be wrong, though.


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