The Iraq war and President Bush have faded from voters’ thoughts in the year since President Obama won the White House, leaving this year’s Democratic candidates to justify $787 billion in stimulus spending despite lingering high unemployment and pushing a health care overhaul amid widespread voter skepticism.
Heading into next week’s gubernatorial contests and special congressional elections, Democrats face an electorate whose good will and belief that an Obama-led party would be transformative have quickly evaporated even though the main issues seemingly are the same.
From California to New York, dominant themes are health care, Social Security, the weak housing market and misgivings about Wall Street bailouts. But for the first time in years, several polls show voters trust Republicans more than Democrats to better address the problems of the day.
California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a Democrat who should be a shoo-in in a special congressional election Nov. 3, is leading by single digits in surveys of his solidly Democratic Bay Area district. It’s close enough — about a seven-point margin — to get state Republicans talking about an upset and Mr. Garamendi waging a fierce battle against Republican David Harmer.
Mr. Garamendi said the president is still enormously popular in the district but it’s the economy that ranks as voters’ No. 1 concern.
“They want the stimulus program to work, and it has been, at least in this district,” Mr. Garamendi said. “Obviously, there is still unemployment and concerns about that.”
The jobless rate is about 12 percent in California’s 10th District, where Mr. Obama thought it was necessary to campaign earlier this month to try to retain the seat held since 1996 by Democrat Ellen Tauscher, who resigned to take a job as Mr. Obama’s undersecretary of state for arms control.
In overwhelmingly Democratic New Jersey, where the state’s 9.7 percent unemployment rate is the highest since 1977, Gov. Jon Corzine finds himself in a come-from-behind run to overtake Republican Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney.
Mr. Corzine’s deputy chief of staff went so far as to tell Cabinet officers earlier this month to put on events showcasing job creation in the state, even if it is “a stretch,” according to reports that originally appeared in the Newark Star Ledger.
The governor later defended the memo, saying, “I don’t think it’s a news flash that this administration is focused on jobs, jobs, jobs.”
A Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey poll last week showed that jobs and the economy together were the second-most-important issue to the state’s voters, after property taxes. Health care, other taxes, state spending, education and corruption rounded out the top seven.
The list is nearly identical for voters across the country, and it reflects a mood that is frustrating Democrats in other off-year elections, including Creigh Deeds’ run for governor in Virginia, which made history by backing Mr. Obama last November.
For the fist time in recent years, voters say they trust Republicans more than Democrats on all of the top 10 election issues tracked by Rasmussen Reports surveys. A Rasmussen poll last week showed voters prefer Republicans on economic issues 49 percent to 35 percent, on taxes 50 percent to 35 percent and on health care 46 percent to 40 percent.
The other issues were education (47 percent-38 percent), Social Security (45 percent-37 percent), abortion (47 percent-35 percent), immigration (40 percent-33 percent), national security (45 percent-31 percent), Iraq (50 percent-31 percent) and government ethics (33 percent-29 percent).
The dynamic also is roiling Republicans in the special election in New York’s 23rd District, where the party is desperately trying to hold on to the seat vacated by nine-term Republican John M. McHugh, who resigned to become Mr. Obama’s secretary of the Army.
Republican Dede Scozzafava, a centrist member of the State Assembly, is losing support to Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman and, as a result, trailing Democratic lawyer Bill Owens in polls.
Mr. Hoffman is tapping the anger of the “tea party” activists — whose movement gained national attention this summer with protests against runaway government spending and debt — by casting doubt over the conservative credentials of Ms. Scozzafava, who supported Mr. Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package.
California’s Mr. Garamendi is still a favorite to win the 10th District despite the strong showing by his Republican rival. A recent Wilson Research Strategies poll showed the Democrat leading 41 percent to 34 percent, but it is still too close for comfort for Democrats in a district that voted 64.7 percent for Mr. Obama and re-elected Mrs. Tauscher by 65 percent last year.
The Harmer campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
The jobless rate in Virginia is tame compared to other parts of the country. But unemployment inched up to 6.7 percent in September, and the issue dominates the stump for both Mr. Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell, a former state attorney general.
For Mr. McDonnell, who leads in most polls by about 8 points, the jobs issue is also a weapon.
His campaign began airing a TV ad Friday that blasts Mr. Deeds, a state senator, for promoting what it calls “job-killing policies” and brands Mr. McDonnell “a jobs governor.”
“Creigh Deeds job-killing policies: A billion dollars in new taxes. A new energy tax that would kill up to 56,000 jobs. Deeds pushed a billion dollars in new spending,” the narrator says. “Creigh Deeds, higher taxes, job-killing policies.”
Virginia Democratic Party spokeswoman Allison Jaslow said voters know that Mr. Deeds has a proven record on economic issues, such as helping create a government fund that lured businesses to the state and has created about 80,000 jobs since 1996.
“We clearly win when it comes to the economy,” she said.