There isn't a lot of complacency in the Democratic Party these days. Democratic officeholders hardly need the robot from the 1960s television show Lost in Space to tell them, "Danger, Will Robinson, danger!" The signs are all over, and Democrats haven't missed them.
Just two months ago, little-known state Sen. Creigh Deeds won a surprise victory in Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial primary, he was ahead in the polls, and as a small-town, country lawyer he seemed impervious to efforts to paint him as a "national Democrat." The jinx dating back to Jimmy Carter's presidency that has kept the president's party from winning the governorship of Virginia looked for a time like it would finally be broken.
Although that race isn't over, the GOP nominee, former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, now holds a solid lead. A Deeds victory would be a true upset. The turnabout is not because McDonnell walks on water or Deeds is blowing the race. In fact, both nominees seem quite competent and to have campaigns that are up to the task.
What's happened is that Virginia, a state that seemed to be loosening its ties to the South and becoming more like a Mid-Atlantic state, has suddenly started behaving a bit more Southern -- less hospitable to Democrats in general and President Obama in particular. Although Obama carried the commonwealth last year, he would be unlikely to win it today and certainly would not win it with the turnout configuration that is likely this November. The students, minorities, and Democratic base voters who came out in large numbers for Obama last year are not likely to do so this year. What's more, the deep depression that enveloped Republicans last year is gone. The GOP's conservative base is angry and motivated.
Democrats also see trouble in New Jersey's gubernatorial race, where incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine's already major problems increased exponentially when FBI raids last month netted 44 arrests of political cronies, most of them Democrats. In retrospect, the decision by the usually hapless New Jersey Republican Party to nominate former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie looks brilliant. Until the raids, a good case could have been made that Corzine's experience as a candidate and unlimited bank account in a state with two of the nation's most expensive media markets gave him a good chance of hanging on, despite lagging in early-summer polls. That argument rings hollow now. Democrats are likely going to lose the governorship there unless Christie commits a major faux pas or has a meltdown.
Then there is the upcoming special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District to replace GOP Rep. John McHugh, Obama's nominee to be secretary of the Army. That race may well be held the same day as the contests in Virginia and New Jersey. The district is closely divided politically. But Republicans have nominated a moderate, seasoned female state legislator, while Democrats have opted for an unknown attorney who will have to build political support from scratch. And unlike in the neighboring 20th Congressional District, where their party won a special election in March, Democrats don't have an existing campaign infrastructure to help them catch up.
It doesn't take much of an imagination to guess what the post-game analysis will sound like if Democrats go 0-3 this fall. Odd-year elections have a mixed record in terms of foreshadowing what will happen the next year. But to the extent that their results feed into a story line, they can be very important. And with Virginia's proximity to Washington, D.C., the outcome of the Deeds-McDonnell contest is likely to have the greatest impact on the conventional wisdom.