Elections to test Obama’s public image

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If elections are the ultimate beauty contest, President Obama next week will have his first major turn on the catwalk since his inauguration.

Having campaigned with the Democrats running for governor in Virginia and New Jersey and for the Democrat running in a special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, Mr. Obama has put his prestige and momentum on the line.

Republicans say Mr. Obama has the most riding on Virginia, where they can break the Democrats’ winning streak and throw a kink in the red-to-blue realignment Mr. Obama said he ushered in. Democrats say the president has little to lose but could pull off a coup if he can boost turnout enough to help in the tight New Jersey race.

The White House is keeping mum about what’s at stake for Mr. Obama.

“Ask me the day after,” spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.

In Virginia, where Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell has run ahead of Democrat Creigh Deeds in the polls for almost the entire campaign, Republicans say they have a chance to show talk of a South-Mountain West realignment is premature.

“They were saying that Virginia, with Jim Webb’s [2006 Senate] victory, with [Gov.] Tim Kaine’s victory in ‘05, then Obama carrying Virginia, [Mark] Warner just demolishing Jim Gilmore, that was an indication the South and border states like Virginia were now moving to the left,” said David Johnson, president of Strategic Vision LLC, a Republican polling firm. “Virginia really is the test case for the Democratic Party — have they made these inroads, has the country really moved to the left?”

Mr. Obama carried Virginia with 53 percent of the vote in 2008, won New Jersey with 57 percent and carried New York’s 23rd Congressional District with 52 percent.

Mr. Johnson said that Virginia showing could be Mr. Obama’s “Gettysburg” — the high point that marks the furthest inroads he’s able to make into formerly Republican territory before suffering a push-back that could begin next week.

“If they can carry Virginia, if they can hold on to Virginia, then they still have momentum. If not it’s a big embarrassment,” he said.

But Democrats say with damaged candidates in both governor’s races, the president won’t be blamed. Instead, he can help himself if he helps carry either gubernatorial candidate — and most likely it would be incumbent New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine — over the finish line in his race against Republican Chris Christie.

“If [Corzine] ends up winning by a point or two because those folks do come out because Obama told them to, that’s going to show he can have an effect in close races,” said Tom Jensen, a pollster at Public Policy Polling in North Carolina.

Mr. Jensen said losses in both gubernatorial races would show Mr. Obama he has work to do on improving his coattails for 2010.

Both sides said the New York congressional election, which pits a Republican, a Democrat and a strong Conservative Party candidate, will say more about the health of the Republican Party than it will about Mr. Obama’s operation.

Still, with three races of national significance, some Democrats privately say Mr. Obama should claim a victory if Democrats pick up at least one win.

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.

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