George Allen

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From Newsweek

Election 2009: Don't Stare at the Tea Leaves for Too Long

Make no mistake: tonight’s losses in Virginia and New Jersey should worry the Democratic Party. Just one year after their historic presidential victory, it turns out that ballots without the name “Obama” don’t have the same magnetic allure for voters, especially if said voters are young, black, or Hispanic. That’s a problem for Democrats heading into 2010, particularly members of Congress who were elected in traditionally Republican districts. But be careful about reading too much into these results. It wasn't a referendum on the president.

Recent history tells us that both Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial contests tend to be won by the party that has just been kicked out of the White House. In 2001, Democrats Jim McGreevey and Mark Warner soundly beat their Republican opponents in New Jersey and Virginia, respectively, where the GOP had held both positions. And in 1993, Bill Clinton’s first year in office, Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey and George Allen in Virginia wrested the governorships from Democrats.

This isn’t 2008. Obama is no longer the voice of change, a representation of possibility. He’s the president, the incumbent, the new establishment. He’s the guy with the power in races where, as Fineman notes, voters clearly want to continue punishing the Big Dogs. Even if many of the problems Obama is dealing with were not of his making, he’s the guy holding all the cards now. Recovering from a near-devastating recession was never going to be simple or speedy. And 10 months into a new administration the probability that the economic outlook would suddenly be peachy was pretty low. So there’s still a lot of understandable anger about the economic debacle of 2008, and of course some of that will reflect on the president.

Still, neither of the new Republican governors, Bob McDonnell or Chris Christie, ran anti-Obama campaigns. Both men, McDonnell in particular, kept their campaigns upbeat in the face of negative attacks, and the voters responded. Similarly, neither Democrat, Creigh Deeds nor Jon Corzine, are particularly Obama-esque—politically, biographically, or rhetorically. They can stand beside him in as many campaign ads as they like, but few voters are going to mistake a pro-gun hunter with a Southern accent for the president any time soon. And let's not forget that much of each race was dedicated to local issues—transport policy or state taxes—which is entirely typical of state races. Those aren’t the transcendent themes that resonated so loudly with Obama voters last year.

For me, the biggest question raised by tonight’s results is this: if the Democratic candidates had run as “Obama Democrats” (in the vein of “Reagan Republicans”), what would that campaign look like? Can the appeal of the Obama ’08 campaign—change, hope, etc.—even be localized? Or does its very existence revolve around the enormous possibility of the presidency? How do congressional or state-office candidates take the Obama credo and reasonably apply it to local issues like speed limits and playgrounds? Of course the president himself was a community organizer who probably understands the potency of fiercely parochial issues. And he clearly knows how to parlay that knowledge into a political career. But the distance between urban planning, for example, and the Obama ’08 campaign is vast. He and his advisers need to figure out how to campaign in that space in between—under an Obama (i.e., not conservative) presidency—if he’s to hold on to his impressive legislative majorities in 2010.

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