Every time a special election hands one party control of another party’s open seat, the refrain rings throughout Washington: The winners crow that a new tide is sweeping in. The losers insist the results are an anomaly that has little bearing on the larger national narrative.
In the case of Republican Bob Turner’s unexpected, and unexpectedly large, win in New York’s 9th District on Tuesday, the winners have a better case than the losers. In the Democrats’ defense, they did have a lousy candidate who seemed to shoot himself in the foot at will. But if Democrats hide behind that excuse, they are missing the blaring Klaxons that should wake the party up to the danger it faces.
Republicans’ big special-election wins in New York and in Nevada’s 2nd District, where Mark Amodei won by a huge 22-point margin, are but single data points in larger sets that spell trouble for Democrats.
The party missed an opportunity to take back Wisconsin’s state Senate in August. The Democratic National Committee was outraised by its Republican counterpart last month by more than $2 million, even with President Obama’s Chicago birthday celebration. Obama’s approval ratings hit new lows this week in Bloomberg and CNN surveys even as he hit the road to sell a jobs plan that, as a complete package, has no realistic chance of passing a Republican-controlled House. Obama’s approval ratings have even fallen below 50 percent in California, according to a poll out this week.
The economy has stubbornly refused to provide any serious good news, as unemployment hovers at politically fatal heights. And Obama’s getting it from both sides. Every proposal that comes out of the White House is met with some of the sharpest criticism from within the president’s own party: Centrists like Sens. Mary Landrieu said this week that the jobs bill is a political stunt, while liberals don’t believe the package goes far enough.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Democrats facing reelection next year is that Obama himself has become an effective albatross for Republicans to hang around the party’s candidates. In both New York and Nevada, Republican winners encouraged voters to send a message to the White House, signaling perhaps the GOP’s most effective argument in 2012.
Democrats have yet to figure out how to distance themselves from their unpopular president. Voting against his signature initiatives doesn’t work. Trying to out-conservative your opponent hasn’t succeeded. Even admitting, as then-Rep. Gene Taylor did in late 2010, that he had voted for John McCain for president wasn’t enough to save the conservative Democrat from being swept out on the Republican tide.
That’s further proof that voters now judge candidates less by their positions and ideologies and more by their party identifications. Voters are acting as if the U.S. is a parliamentary democracy, in which party matters most, rather than a republican democracy in which members of Congress routinely vote against their own parties (largely, of course, because ideologically homogenous members of Congress no longer routinely vote against their own parties).
It should also serve as a loud warning for Democrats. Putting distance between themselves and Obama is logical when he is unpopular. It’s just not working as an electoral tactic yet.
West Virginia Becomes a Race
The four governorships up for election in 2011 were supposed to be sleepy affairs. Republicans in Kentucky nominated a flawed candidate who is unlikely to compete strongly against Gov. Steve Beshear. Democrats didn’t even field a candidate against Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. And Mississippi Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant looks like he’s cruising in his quest to replace outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour.
But, quietly, Republicans are beginning to view West Virginia as a pickup opportunity. Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, is leading Republican businessman Bill Maloney by a narrowing margin, and national groups are spending money to help Maloney close that gap.
It is a mistake to view West Virginia as a red state despite its performance in recent presidential elections. No Republican has won a full Senate term there since Chapman Revercomb in 1948.
Voters cast ballots differently in gubernatorial elections, which are driven by local issues, than they do in national elections. A West Virginia Democrat, in short, is much different from a national Democrat. For evidence, just look at Sen. Joe Manchin’s voting record and his campaign rhetoric, which included an ad in which he literally shot up cap-and-trade legislation.
But both sides admit that Tomblin, a longtime state senator who ascended to the governorship when Manchin took his Senate seat, now holds a lead in the high single digits. The Republican Governors Association has hammered Tomblin for his association with a dog track that has made millions since he backed pro-gambling legislation.
The Democratic Governors Association, meanwhile, is taking the race seriously. Its ad campaign, combined with Tomblin’s, will outpace the combined Republican-paid media campaign this week and next, a Democratic source points out. And Tomblin has built the right coalition for a West Virginia Democrat: He has been endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the state AFL-CIO, and the National Rifle Association.
Democrats are attacking Maloney as a businessman who moved his company out of state to avoid in-state taxes, and who lived in a palatial mansion in Georgia. If Tomblin takes to the rifle range to begin shooting up Democrats’ jobs plan, it might be further evidence that the race is tightening.
Arizona's February Monkey Wrench
Leave it to the state that gave us John McCain the maverick to step in and screw up both parties' carefully laid plans. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's announcement this week that the Copper State will hold its primary on February 28 threatens a delicate balance struck between senior members of the Republican and Democratic National Committees that was aimed at bringing some sanity to a front-loaded presidential primary calendar.
Republicans were pleased that Brewer backed off an initial threat to hold Arizona's primary on January 31. With Iowa tentatively scheduled to hold its caucuses on February 6 and New Hampshire's primary slated for February 14, a contest in January would have caused another rush to the earliest part of the year.
While Arizona's move could have been worse, it raises the prospect that Florida could still move their primary well into February, thus endangering both sides' best laid plans to spend the holidays at home with their families. Already, Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon has said he is determined to put his state's primary before Arizona. South Carolina Republican Party chairman Chad Connelly said his state would move their first-in-the-South primary up from its tentative February 28 date.
The result looks likely to be another rush to the front. Because Iowa holds a party-run caucus and New Hampshire's primary is set at the sole discretion of Secretary of State Bill Gardner, both states could move their contests back into January if they feel their place at the front of the pack is being encroached upon.
After 2008, when candidates were forced to campaign throughout the 2007 holidays because of early January contests in the first two states, both parties wanted to push primaries back. RNC and DNC members worked together to establish early state dates in February, with a designated "window" opening for every other state in early March. Republicans have spent months in careful negotiations with Florida GOP officials after the Sunshine State threatened to hold their own contest in February.
The biggest loser: Nevada. After both parties gave Nevada the opportunity to hold its caucuses before any other Western State, both sides have been disappointed in the apparent lack of interest the state's political class has shown in taking up the early contest mantle. This year, no candidate has given Nevada the attention that Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or even Florida has received.
"We had a golden opportunity just kind of put in our laps in 2008, and I don't think we recognized as a state just how important that was," Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller said in an interview. "I don't see the kind of energy necessary on the Republican side" to make Nevada a key contest, he said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column mischaracterized Thomas Carper’s comments about the jobs bill.
This article appears in the Sep. 15, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.