Matt Bennett, vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a progressive think tank in Washington, said he expects both sides to make claims the day after the elections but added that the hot air will be wasted.
“The stakes for Obama are less than meets the eye. These off-years are always interpreted as a referendum on something, and they rarely are,” he said. “My feeling about Virginia and New Jersey is if they were part of a poll, it would be too small a number to be statistically significant. I just don’t think they signal much.”
A year after Mr. Obama galvanized the electorate and boosted voter turnout with his message of hope and change, both sides say Republican voters are the more motivated folks at this point. Also, it’s natural for off-year elections to punish the party that holds the White House.
In fact, in Virginia, the party that won the presidency has lost the last eight gubernatorial races.
Complicating Democrats’ efforts to buck history is the letdown in black voter turnout. With Mr. Obama on the ballot last year, black voters matched white voters in turnout, but that is expected to drop in 2009.
Mississippi Gov. and Republican Governors Association Chairman Haley Barbour told The Washington Times recently that while the elections will be decided on local issues, a good showing for Republicans could help spur better recruitment for next year’s full slate of congressional elections.
Mr. Barbour, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee when Republicans won New Jersey and Virginia in 1993, said those victories “stimulated our candidate recruiting to such a degree that this happened: We elected 73 freshmen Republicans to the House. More than half of them made the decision to run for Congress after the November 1993 election.”
Mr. Bennett, though, said candidate recruitment happens much earlier in election cycles now, so spurring a new wave of recruits is more difficult.
History shows that defeats this year don’t have to mean disaster for Mr. Obama next year.
In 2001, early on President George W. Bush’s watch, Republicans suffered losses in both New Jersey and Virginia. And as with Mr. Kaine now, the Republican National Committee in 2001 was run by Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III.
Mr. Bush followed those stinging blows by putting together a solid turnout operation in 2002 and helping Republicans capture the two Senate seats they needed to reclaim the Senate majority that had been lost with Sen. James M. Jeffords’ party switch the previous year.
Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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