The last time Democrats won the White House in 1992, they quickly lost ground in the 1993 and 1994 elections. The results were debilitating for President Clinton. With Republicans winning Governorships in Virginia and New Jersey (the only two states that hold elections in the year after a Presidential contest), and then gaining control of both Houses of Congress in 1994, the President’s ability to promote his agenda was severely constricted.
Such swings are normal in U.S. politics. Incumbent presidents frequently lose their initial popularity, impacting their party. In fact, since 1900, the party of the incumbent president has lost an average of 28 Congressional seats in mid-term elections (one notable exception being George W. Bush, who, with the nation still reeling from the shock of 9/11, strengthened his position in the 2002 contests).
And so it is with some wariness and a watchful eye, attention is being paid to the outcome of this year’s gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey, especially since, Despite Obama having won both states in 2008, and both having sitting Democratic governors, post-Labor Day polls show Democrats in trouble in both contests.
For many election cycles now, Virginians have proved ornery to incumbent Presidents. They elected three Democrats during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations, then proceeded to elect two Republicans during the Clinton years. And in 2001 and 2005, Democratic candidates won in Virginia.
Nevertheless, this is a southern state that traditionally votes Republican in Presidential elections. In fact, in winning Virginia in 2008, Obama became only the first Democrat to carry that state since Lyndon Johnson carried it in 1964.
One reason that Obama and other Democrats have done well in Virginia, of late, is the state’s changing demographic composition. Northern Virginia, the most densely populated region, has been transformed both by suburban sprawl, bringing more liberal Washingtonians into its new neighborhoods, as well as an influx of tens of thousands of new immigrants of varied ethnic backgrounds–”African, Asian, Latino and Arab. It was this latter group that reacted in disgust to an incumbent Republican Senator’s racial slur, providing the margin of victory for his Democratic opponent in 2006.
This year’s gubernatorial race features two long-time Virginian elected officials. The Republican candidate is current Attorney General Bob McDonnell, a traditional conservative. He is running against Creigh Deeds, a native-born rural Virginian who surprised many in the state by winning the Democratic primary against two well-known, better funded and more liberal candidates.
While Deeds has consistently been trailing in the polls, McDonnell has been hurt among more moderate Northern Virginian voters by the recent release of a thesis he wrote 20 years ago while pursuing an advanced degree at Pat Robertson’s fundamentalist Christian university
A recent headline read that the GOP is counting on anti-Obama sentiment, over health care and other issues, to carry the day for their candidate. But this is overly ambitious, at best. Voters who are angry with Obama are already in the Republican camp, and, in reality, this election will be decided more by the capacity of the candidates and their parties to turn out their voters–”than by pro- or anti-Obama sentiment.
The same holds true for New Jersey, although the nature of that state’s contest is altogether different. In this, the “Garden State,” as it is called, an incumbent governor, John Corzine, is running for reelection. He is facing Republican, Chris Christie, a former Bush-appointed U.S. Attorney who is running on an anti-corruption platform.
New Jersey is a traditionally Democratic state in presidential contests, although it, too, is known to elect governors of the opposite party from that holding the White House. A popular moderate Republican won during the Clinton years, while Democrats held the New Jersey governorship during Bush’s two terms in office.
New Jersey’s voters can be quite volatile and appear extremely frustrated both by the sagging economy, which has hit the state hard, and also by wide-spread political corruption. The recent arrest of dozens of local elected officials across the state (most of them Democrats) has given emphasis to this concern.
While Corzine is not to blame for the economic downturn, nor is he implicated in the corruption charges, his candidacy has been negatively impacted. He has been able to turn the tables, somewhat, on his GOP opponent with recent revelations of some questionable personal financial dealings which Christie has acknowledged were wrong. But while these have been much discussed and been embarrassing to Christie, they have not helped Corzine close the gap with his challenger.
The bottom line, here, is that with just six weeks left in both states, the Democratic candidates are lagging behind. Both contests will be hard fought to the finish, and the margins will close by Election Day. Whatever the outcome, it will not, in fact, be a verdict on the occupant of the White House. But should Democrats lose both, the perceptions will be hurtful to the President, which is why Democrats are working hard to maintain their 2008 momentum and Republicans are working to cast these contests as referenda on Obama.
Nevertheless, whatever the outcome of 2009, 2010 will not be a replay of 1994, when the GOP won sweeping victories taking majority control in the House and the Senate. The political landscape has changed since then. Republicans may chip away at the Democrat’s majority, but there are not enough vulnerable Democratic Congressman and Senators for Republicans to win control of either House of Congress.