Before I undoubtedly extract profound meaning from last night's odd-year election results - and naturally I'll try to do so - I feel it first would be wise to acknowledge the limitations of this ritual exercise. Let's face it, most political commentators are congenitally conditioned to overanalyze the tea leaves.
For instance, in November 2001, the Democrats won resounding victories in both the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races. This happened during the first year of the George W. Bush presidency - and just seven weeks after 9/11, when Bush's popularity was in the stratosphere. So commentators naturally concluded that those twin Democratic victories, achieved despite Bush's political strength, surely had to be a sign that the Democrats would kick butt in the 2002 congressional elections. And yet, in the end, quite the opposite occurred.
But we scribes often can't resist the impulse to divine slippery truths. Indeed, on the eve of these '09 elections, readers were often warned about this. On Monday, The Associated Press cautioned that "the outcomes won’t predict next year’s midterm results.” But then the AP proceeded to predict that the outcome of the Virginia gubernatorial race "will be a key measure of how America feels and, perhaps more importantly, how independent voters are acting ahead of the 2010 elections.”
Why do we engage in this practice? Because, as the Columbia Journalism Review shrewdly noted on Monday, "it just makes politics more fun. Much as sports fans create extra meaning for games by seeing every choke or victory in moral terms, political journalists make elections more meaningful by threading them into a broader narrative....The political junkies who read these stories, of course, have all the same incentives to divine broader meaning." (OK, so it's your fault, too.)
So there you have it. And now we can proceed. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there are all kinds of unknown unknowns embedded in last night's results, and I will leave those alone. What follows are only what I can vouch for as the known knowns.
New Jersey. Contrary to the expected Republican spin out of Washngton, the firing of Jon Corzine is not a repudiation of President Obama. Even though the Garden State voters dumped their Democratic governor, they gave Obama a 57 percent approval rating in the exit polls. Low on people skills and slow to make decisions, Corzine was deeply unpopular even while Obama was winning Jersey by 20 points. Having said that, however, it's clear that Obama had no coattails in this race. He repeatedly stumped for Corzine in a bid to stoke the base, and he even sent his top pollster to buttress the Corzine campaign. (Obama really had no choice but to wade in.) Obama's presence was not enough to trump the home-grown perception that Corzine was a self-funding Goldman Sachs guy who had screwed things up in bad economic times - which obviously proves that Obama doesn't walk on water (stop the presses!). Meanwhile, lest anyone think that what happened last night in Jersey was unprecedented, remember that the state has done this before. In 1993, one year after helping to elect Democrat Bill Clinton, Jersey voters, ticked off about property taxes and stoked by conservative populism on talk radio, tossed out Democratic Gov. Jim Florio.
Virginia. Defying the party that controls the White House, Virginia's voters last night chose a governor from the opposing party - and this is supposed to be big news? Perhaps you'd like to guess when Virginians last chose a governor from the same party that controls the White House. The correct year would be...1973. So it's no surprise that Republican Bob McDonnell got the job last night. On the other hand, Republicans can rightly celebrate the fact that McDonnell handily won the independents - the same cohort that tilted for Obama a year ago, thereby helping Obama become the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state since '64. McDonnell got the swing voters by emphasizing jobs, jobs, jobs, which suggests that the sour economy might be a winning issue for congressional Republican candidates next year - assuming, however, that their Democratic opponents screw up the economic issue as badly as Virginia Democratic gubbernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds did. The more immediate beneficial fallout for the GOP is that nervous conservative and moderate Democratic congressmen from swing districts might read the Virginia results as a rebuke to Obama (Virginians gave Obama a 49 percent approval rating in the exit polls) and thus stiffen their resistance to his push for health care reform.
The special congressional election in upstate New York. Sheesh, did the infighting Republicans screw this one up, or what? I'm going to turn back the clock nine days and quote myself: "Never underestimate the contemporary Republican propensity for circular firing squads." The GOP fissure in the 23rd congressional district "is splitting the non-Democratic vote and making it highly likely that the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens, will capture the seat that he normally would never win." Well, sure enough, Ownes won the vacant seat - in a district that had gone Republican in every House election dating back roughly 130 years. Grassroots conservatives, led by Sarah Palin and other luminaries on the right, had rebelled against the moderate Republican nominee, ultimately driving her out of the race (but not off the ballot); she was essentially supplanted last week by purist conservative candidate Doug Hoffman. Conservatives were all set to hail Hoffman's expected victory as proof that purity is a winning ticket...oops! But the Palin wing will insist anyway that big-tent moderates need not apply, that all of next year's Republican congressional nominees should be purists. The skirmishing could get nasty. Obama's woes notwithstanding, the GOP clearly hasn't begun to sort itself out.
Maine's gay marriage referendum. I wrote here yesterday: "Given the fact that New England is (the marriage equality movement's) strongest territory, a thumbs-down verdict tonight would truly be damaging, at least in the short run. Cultural conservatives would be able to spin the results this way: If the 'homosexual agenda' can't win via popular vote even in New England, where can it win?" Indeed. The equality crowd had all sorts of advantages - gay marriage legalization had already been enacted and signed, so the burden was on cultural conservatives to undo it; the pro-gay marriage TV ads smartly tapped into Maine's live-and-let-live traditions; the pro-gay side spent a lot more money than its foes - yet the Maine electorate still voted thumbs down on gay marriage. And the margin (roughly 53-47 percent) was almost the same as the margin in California's referendum one year ago. Until that day when the equality movement finally manages to win somewhere at the ballot box, cultural conservatives will continue to have bragging rights.
New York City mayor. Republican Michael Bloomberg, seeking a third term, spent $90 million of his own money in a race against a little-known Democratic opponent, indeed outspending that opponent by roughly 14-1...yet the mayor wound up with only 50.6 percent of the vote. What known known can we extract from that? Perhaps simply that voters these days are reflexively hostile to incumbents - especially those who are perceived as entitled and arrogant; and especially this guy, who reworked the New York term-limit rules so that he could run again. What if anything does this portend for incumbents and Obama and Republicans generally in '10? Now we're entering the realm of unknown unknowns, so I'll say no more.