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The Monitor's View

How Tuesday's elections rang bells for both parties

Democrats and Republicans need to grab important 'take-aways' from this off-round voting.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / November 4, 2009



We know. We know. Yesterday's most-talked about elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and upstate New York may not be quite the political bellwether for the 2010 contests.

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History shows that off-year elections aren't usually reliable predictors of what's to come. And arguing against any bellwether analysis is the fact that the races hinged on distinct personalities (the charismatic Republican Bob McDonnell, for instance, who handily won the Virginia governorship) or involved local issues (corruption and taxes in New Jersey, taxes and transportation in Virginia, a big catfight over who is more conservative in New York's 23rd Congressional District).

But the final tallies did sound a few tinkling of bells that should alert Democrats and Republicans to grab the important "take-aways" from this off-round voting.

For Democratic candidates next year, the message is that the Obama magic may be ephemeral. His 2008 coalition of young, black, and independent voters evaporated in Tuesday's balloting, replaced by a newly energized Republican base that elected a GOP governor in New Jersey and a GOP sweep of top slots in Virginia's races.

Exit polls showed the percentage of young voters in both states was half that of a year ago. African-Americans also failed to repeat their 2008 story. Independents in both states overwhelmingly backed the GOP gubernatorial candidates.

If President Obama's political pixie dust may not work for many Democrats next year, then they'll need to win the old-fashioned way – by earning the trust of voters on issues important to them. And exit polls this time revealed one main issue above the rest: the economy and jobs.

Does that mean the Democrats' major bills in Congress on healthcare, immigration, and climate change are now dead? Seen as too expensive or a distraction?

It will be interesting to see if the White House and Democrats now frame many of their most-treasured measures in terms of how quickly they can boost the economy and create jobs.

Republicans, meanwhile, will undoubtedly continue to battle internally over the direction of their party – whether they should embrace a big-tent strategy that includes moderates, or water their most conservative roots. Yesterday's results, though, hint that the big-tent might be the wiser choice.

Mr. McDonnell quite purposely avoided a socially conservative campaign, pitching himself as a bipartisan conciliator able to improve the economy. In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie pointedly left attacks on Obama out of it, while instead going after corruption under incumbent Democratic governor Jon Corzine.

And the results of New York's congressional race – in which a moderate GOP runner dropped out to endorse the winning Democrat against a Conservative Party candidate – revealed the limits of angry politics by America's right wing.

If there is one big bell ringing after these elections, it is the cry from Americans concerned about the economy. Democrats have a small window in which to address this before next year's midterms, when most governorships, all 435 House seats, and a third of the Senate will be up for grabs. If jobs don't start coming back, expect serious inroads by Republicans – supported by independents.

But that's just the view from an off-year election.

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