Thoughts On The Off-Off-Year Elections

There is a certain degree of triumphalism out there surrounding last night’s Republican wins in the New Jersey and Virginia governor’s races, and without question the media narrative coming out of Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell dislodging the Democrats from control in those two states is that Republicans are still capable of winning elections even in states Barack Obama carried in 2008.

Some of that good spirit is warranted. Some of it is not.

Christie’s win is the real prize for Republicans today. He comes off as a nice guy and a good public servant, and his message of lowering taxes, fighting corruption and doing something about New Jersey’s horrid business climate certainly fits that state’s condition. Christie’s campaign was panned by virtually all the experts as poorly-run and unimpressive, but at the end of the day he beat incumbent John Corzine by 100,000 votes despite the latter’s having spent $30 million – in a governor’s race! – trying to stay in office. Corzine and the New Jersey Democrat machine apparently went to impressive lengths even for Democrats in promoting election fraud through the use of the state’s new mail-in vote law; union and ACORN operatives went door-to-door in minority communities telling people there was a “new way to vote” and rounding up absentee ballots. That didn’t help; at the end of the day Corzine was so reviled by the voters that even in a state totally controlled by one of the most corrupt Democrat machines and shot through with class envy and economic illiteracy the former Goldman Sachs hotshot was turned out on his rear end.

That’s a big win for Republicans. Christie is a middling conservative and his appeal within the Republican Party is probably not going to be any greater than that of past GOP governors Tom Kean and Christie Todd Whitman. His position on Second Amendment issues is nothing short of atrocious. But in a state where Democrat governance has created refugees in the tens of thousands, he offers some hope that a Republican-led turnaround in the Garden State might rebalance the party’s fortunes in that part of the country.

The Obama lickspittles in the media are hustling to detach Christie’s win from any significance to his presidential approval, and it’s not especially noxious for them to do so; the New Jersey race was much more a rejection of Corzine than of Obama. Still, the president spent a good deal of time in New Jersey campaigning for Corzine. While his popularity in New Jersey is still above average, it’s clear he doesn’t have coattails in that state at this point. Obama won New Jersey by a vast 15-point margin last year; that the Democrat incumbent governor who outspent the Republican challenger 3-to-1 would lose by five points one year later is a rather stark fall-off. Dropping 20 points in your party’s fortunes in a year is unspinnably bad electoral performance.

The story in Virginia was even worse for Obama, though less of a shock given how things had been unfurling going into yesterday’s vote. McDonnell presented Virginia’s voters with an unmistakably conservative candidate; his social conservatism was crystal-clear and an avenue of attack for Democrat Creigh Deeds and his propagandist allies at the Washington Post, who prattled on ad nauseam about a college master’s thesis McDonnell wrote in defense of traditional gender roles. But McDonnell wore his conservatism extremely well. In the face of withering attacks from the Left he didn’t apologize or back down from his cultural beliefs, but at the same time he also refrained from anointing himself as all that was good and true. Instead, McDonnell ran a campaign about nuts-and-bolts government. He talked about taxes, he talked about private-sector jobs and he talked about roads and schools – things within a governor’s portfolio. It was a well-run campaign and it was devastatingly effective; McDonnell beat Deeds by 18 points, and the rout was so complete that the GOP candidates down the ballot cruised to easy victories in two other statewide races and picked up a half-dozen or so seats in the Virginia House of Delegates as well.

Obama won Virginia by six points last year, the first Democrat to win that state in a presidential election since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. McDonnell’s victory indicated a 24-point swing away from the president.

Obama’s people had all but taken over the Deeds campaign in the last month prior to yesterday’s election, and the results were disastrous. The president didn’t make the kind of personal investment in that race that he made in New Jersey, but the apparent lesson is that voters in a more conservative state like Virginia are a good bit more turned off by his governance than they were in more left-wing New Jersey. The tradition of Virginians voting against the party in the White House in their gubernatorial election also apparently played a part in the results; the president’s party has lost every gubernatorial race in Virginia since 1976.

So in the two most high-profile races decided yesterday, Republicans posted big wins and indicated giant swings away from Obama’s 2008 victory. That would augur well for the future of the party. Why qualify the success?

The fact is, there is a gigantic movement out there against big government and socialist nanny-state tyranny. The Tea Party phenomenon, the town hall outrage against Obama’s attempt to seize the health care sector, the continued and growing disgust at the president’s asinine economic policies and the growing feeling of malaise and decline at his weak leadership on foreign policy – all of these factors are contributing to a massive opportunity for a GOP resurgence.

But in the special Congressional election in New York’s 23rd district, the party showed itself unworthy as yet to take advantage of the current circumstances. Democrat Bill Owens was able to run away with a race that party had no business claiming, largely due to the breathtaking stupidity and incompetence of Republican leadership both locally and inside the Beltway. The race was mucked up so badly by the GOP that the Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava, who was considerably to the left of the Democrat, dropped out of the race and endorsed Owens over Conservative Party nominee and last-minute GOP endorsee Doug Hoffman. Scozzafava ended up getting a small vote total which would likely have made the difference in a Hoffman win.

It would be easy to dismiss NY-23 as just a crazy race which doesn’t mean anything. And the fact is Owens looks like he’ll be somewhat problematic for the Democrat leadership in the House; he campaigned as an opponent of the “public option” on health care, for example. If he’s rolled over by Nancy Pelosi and the other left-wing loons running the House Democrat apparatus and votes with Pelosi a la the majority of the faux-conservative “blue dog” Democrats he’s likely to be turned out next year.

But the fact is a party capable of making the kind of hash the GOP did with the Scozzafava nomination is capable of wasting the current national opportunity. The conservative side of the party did a very creditable job of jumping on Hoffman’s bandwagon and turning a third-party longshot candidacy into a real opportunity for victory; the Club For Growth injected a million dollars into the race on Hoffman’s behalf and conservative volunteers from all over the country descended on NY-23 to give him an organization he’d never otherwise have had. Hoffman comported himself reasonably well for a rookie candidate; he comes off as a little goofy and his speeches were a bit wooden but he’s otherwise likable and reasonable, and it’s conceivable that under better circumstances he would have won rather easily.

It’s the Republican establishment which is the problem. First, the idea that the GOP would pick Scozzafava as its nominee is an indication of staggering foolishness. Here was a candidate with zero charisma, whose record in the New York State Assembly (itself a terribly unpopular entity) was unimpressive in the extreme, whose credentials even as a moderate Republican were dubious given that she had voted to increase taxes almost 200 times, was a supporter of card-check legislation (her husband was an AFL-CIO representative), was socially far-left and had supported cap-and-trade and whose party loyalty had been in question even prior to her turning coat and endorsing Owens over the weekend. In short, Scozzafava is precisely the kind of Republican who should be immediately disqualified by the party’s bosses as a standard bearer – she certainly would have been turned out rudely in a primary had there been one. And yet 11 county chairmen in NY-23 agreed to run her for the U.S. Congress, with either acquiescence or even encouragement from Beltway suits at the RNC or National Republican Congressional Committee. The NRCC ended up wasting $900,000 of its donors’ money on Scozzafava in that race before she dropped out and endorsed the Democrat.

You’ll find other conservative commentators who will look at the fact that Scozzafava sunk like a stone in that race and had to drop out while Hoffman made an impressive showing as a third-party candidate and thus conclude the GOP has to run conservatives wherever possible if it wants to win races. While that sentiment is one I absolutely share, I have no confidence that message will get through to the Republican establishment. To the contrary, I fear that the country-club set still running the party will draw the opposite lesson. I’m worried they’ll say the Scozzafava-Hoffman debacle proves those crazy right-wingers will drag the party down and make it impossible to win elections, and this race proves it.

What’s more, the one thing NY-23 does prove is that a third-party option is no option for conservatives; Hoffman was able to get on the ballot in New York because a third party apparatus is already in place there, but that’s not available to conservatives elsewhere in the country. The Libertarian Party is thought of by most as a haven for hopheads wanting to make marijuana legal, which is an argument with some intellectual merit but a sure loser as an electoral stance, while the Constitution Party has no apparatus to successfully elect candidates. The Conservative line in New York does have the ability to occasionally produce a winner; that Hoffman wasn’t elected despite becoming a cause celebre and a romantic figure on the Right is a sure-fire indicator to the Tea party crowd that if they want to make a difference they’re stuck with the Republicans. And the country-club crowd in charge of the party is well aware of that fact.

Still, for all the refurbishment still necessary within the Republican ranks a 15-25 point swing in what was Obama territory in the space of a year represents major progress. Meaningful success in 2010 is indisputably possible now, and as a result there should be real implications with respect to policy. Last night’s results should go a long way toward letting steam out of cap-and-trade and socialized medicine; the latter apparently won’t be brought to a vote in the Senate until January at the earliest.

But this party has got to get its act together. Voter sentiment will attach to a McDonnell, but not a Scozzafava. If the Republicans don’t draw the right lessons from last night’s verdict, they’re going to squander the coming opportunity just like they squandered their congressional majority and the White House in 2006 and 2008.

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