Four things Democrats must do to avoid defeat in 2010

Yesterday’s losses in New Jersey and Virginia show that turnout matters.

Last year, after President Obama's epic win, Democrats were talking about creating a permanent political majority. Last night, after losing two big races in Virginia and New Jersey, they were talking about what went wrong.

Today, they should be neither boastful nor mournful, but thoughtful about four lessons: (1) Find better candidates. (2)Get registered voters to the polls. (3) Don't plan on inheriting victories. (4) Prove that Democratic majorities matter.

The first lesson: Find better candidates. For Democrats, the candidates for governor were an obstacle, not an advantage. That Democrat Jon Corzine even had a shot of winning New Jersey, given his abysmally low approval ratings, speaks to just how blue the Garden State is. Anywhere else an anticorruption candidate like Republican Chris Christie would have won by double digits.

Likewise, in Virginia, Democrat Creigh Deeds, a solid candidate for governor, apparently thought it would be enough to slap together a few attack ads and ride Mr. Obama's lingering coattails to victory. On its face, it was a serviceable strategy: Obama has higher-than-average approval numbers in Virginia, the state went for the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 44 years, and it has had a string of well-liked Democratic governors.

But Mr. Deeds is no Tim Kaine, the outgoing Democratic governor. He was not a strong campaigner or a strong strategist, and as a result he failed to get out the vote.

Which brings us to Lesson 2: To win in 2010, Democrats will have to get all those registered voters to the polls.

One of the major victories of the Obama campaign was its ability to register first-time voters and get them to show up on Election Day.

The mass registration means that, in many areas, Democrats outnumber Republicans on the registration rolls by large margins.

In Virginia, for instance, Democrats have a six-point advantage in registered voters. Look at likely voters, though, and that number shifts dramatically, favoring Republicans by seven points.

That's not a huge surprise: New voters, especially younger voters, are traditionally the least likely to show up on Election Day.

What this means is that Democrats face a new challenge: training the newest members of their coalition to show up at the polls for off-year and midterm elections. That is a notoriously difficult project, but if Democrats want that permanent majority, they're going to have to work for it.

That leads to Lesson 3: don't plan on inheriting victories.

An obvious enough point, but much of Democratic celebration over the past year has been based on just that: inheriting a permanent majority.

Strategists point to demographic shifts, Republican infighting, and the odds of economic recovery as signs that Democrats are going to stay in power for a long time.

To win Virginia, Deeds needed to work to hold the Democratic alliance together, to turn out the minority and the youth vote. Based on his campaign strategy, however, it appears that he took their votes – and their turnout – for granted. They didn't show up, and his GOP opponent walked away with a clear victory.

This, too, is why Democrats need to be wary of the results in New York's 23rd district, where fractures in the GOP handed the victory to Bill Owens, the first Democratic candidate to win that area in over a century.

Some of the races in 2010 will see that same dynamic at work, but most of them won't. Democrats who sit around waiting for the GOP to implode could well find themselves watching Republican majorities return in 2010.

Finally, Lesson 4: If Democrats want to get their voters to the polls in 2010, they have to prove that Democratic majorities matter. Thanks to the healthcare stalemate and economic slump, pundits have been prattling on and on about how little the Democrats have done in power.

Remind voters what a Democratic president and Democratic Congress have been able to do in a short amount of time: expand children's health insurance coverage; protect women's right to sue for pay discrimination; release a number of long-detained, never-charged Guantanamo inmates; and return a general sense of goodwill toward America on the world stage.

And then get healthcare passed. With that, and a little luck on the economic front, Tuesday's GOP victories will be a blip, not a bellwether.

Nicole Hemmer is a former fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs and a PhD candidate in history at Columbia University. She is writing a history of conservative media.

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