Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ten things about Tuesday’s elections

1. A year is an eternity in politics – Who would have thought on election night 2008, when Mark Warner destroyed Jim Gilmore in a U.S. Senate race, Democrats won the majority of Congressional seats in Virginia and Barack Obama became the first Democrat to carry Virginia in a presidential election since 1964, that election night 2009 would feature a landslide statewide sweep by Virginia Republicans? That should put in perspective claims that Tuesday’s elections serve as a preview of what will happen in next year’s mid-term Congressional elections. A lot can happen in a year.

2. What Creigh Deeds and Mary Sue Terry have in common – Tuesday’s election was similar to 1993, when George Allen won in a landslide over Mary Sue Terry. In both cases, a large percentage of blame was placed on an “unpopular” Democratic president. In both cases a bad economy, which forced an increasingly unpopular Democratic governor to repeatedly make cuts in the state budget, probably had more to do with the results. Bill Clinton in 1993 and Obama this year are being blamed for the loss. Probably a bad rap in both cases. While Clinton was genuinely unpopular in Virginia in 1993, Obama’s approval rating is equal to the share of the vote he garnered last year, about 53%. Exit polls Tuesday showed that 70% of Virginia votes said the president didn’t have anything to do with their vote for governor. Of course the coalition that elected Obama, young people, African-Americans and suburban independents, either didn’t show up for Deeds Tuesday or voted for Republican Bob McDonnell. That has a lot to do with a slow economy and the resulting loss of status of Gov. Tim Kaine. Like Doug Wilder’s, Kaine’s troubles came home to roost for his potential Democratic successor. One reason that happened is that Deeds, like Terry, ran a miserable campaign.

3. Virginians won’t vote for the “mean guy” - Deeds’ campaign never gave anyone a reason to vote for him, concentrating on reasons to vote against McDonnell. That was a critical mistake. Although McDonnell’s college thesis, which evidenced hostility to working women, gays, unmarried fornicators and divorce, served a purpose for the Deeds campaign in cutting into McDonnell’s lead, the Democrats never followed it up with a positive message. They just kept pounding the thesis story. Most voters indicated that they thought Deeds was running a negative campaign. Uh oh. As 2005 loser Jerry Kilgore could have told Deeds, that won’t work in Virginia. You can make comparisons, you can even go a little bit negative, but if Virginia voters think you’ve been rude or mean, you’re toast.

4. Will the “McDonnell model” catch on with the national GOP? – McDonnell won by running as a moderate, mainstream candidate primarily interested in pocketbook issues, as “Bob for Jobs.” That’s not who he had been for 14 years in the legislature, when he was much more interested in bills restricting abortion and making it more difficult to get a divorce than he was in generating jobs. But it’s the image he made stick with voters through a nearly error-free campaign. He disassociated himself from the screamers on the right, the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party who are busy yelling “Socialist” at a president who hasn’t even shown himself as much of a liberal yet. He didn’t even criticize Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, which seemed to befuddle the president himself. The other model for Republicans is to go full “old mad white guy” and embrace the Glen Beck/Rush Limbaugh model of conservatism. That didn’t work out so well for them in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, where a Tea Party type forced the mainstream Republican out of the race and Democrats captured a seat that Republicans had held for more than 100 years.

5. Democrats should remember those Republican “part-time governor lines – I know Bob McDonnell. He’s an ambitious guy. I wouldn’t be surprised if next spring, after the General Assembly has finished its work, we see him start to accept speaking engagements in Iowa and New Hampshire and other early 2012 presidential primary battlegrounds. His victory Tuesday makes him one of the brightest new stars in the Republican universe. He could attract a good deal of support. He combines Mike Huckabee’s appeal to the Religious Right with Mitt Romney’s slickness and ability to run to the middle, without Romney’s documented record of flip-flops or Mormon religion. Even if McDonnell chooses not to explore the presidential waters, he’d be an attractive vice presidential candidate, particularly for a nominee like Romney or Sarah Palin, who comes from outside the GOP’s Dixie base camp.

6. Who Creigh Deeds should really be mad at – Reportedly Deeds isn’t too happy with president Obama’s staff, which seemed to cut him loose a week before the election or Democratic bloggers, who moaned that a “more progressive” Democratic candidate would have run better. The person he really should be mad at is whomever he paid to do his opposition research in his 2005 attorney general campaign against McDonnell, which he lost by less than 400 votes. That person failed to turn up Deeds college thesis – actually his op-research folks didn’t find it this year either, McDonnell tipped off the Washington Post which dug it up. While the thesis couldn’t overcome the big lead McDonnell had run up this year, I’m pretty sure it could have swayed the 400 votes it would have taken to reverse the 2005 race. If Deeds, instead of McDonnell, had come into this election as the incumbent attorney general, it would have been a different world. There would have been no expensive three-way Democratic primary. Deeds would most likely have been the unchallenged Democratic nominee for governor, likely against Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who is less polished than McDonnell and less popular, even among Republicans.

7. Has incumbency lost its advantages? – In the four previous House of Delegates elections of the 21st century, a total of 10 incumbents lost their seats. The highest total of incumbents dumped in any one year was four. Tuesday, eight incumbents lost, seven Democrats and Del. Phil Hamilton (R-93rd). Another Democratic incumbent was in a race that was too close to call as of Thursday and certainly headed for a recount.

8. Seniority counts, except when it doesn’t – But, of those eight losing incumbents, six were in their first or second terms. Hamilton, mired in scandal and under investigation, was the only long-time legislator to be ousted. Most of the incumbents who lost Tuesday were junior Democrats who’d won seats in previous Republican strongholds – Virginia Beach, Loudoun County, Lynchburg – since Democrats had launched their comeback after the redistricting driven electoral massacre of 2001. They hadn’t had time to establish themselves as local institutions and couldn’t withstand the Republican statewide wave.

9. Watch for Republican to make a play for the Senate now – Just as Jim Gilmore did after his 1997 win, McDonnell is likely to try to give his party a working majority in the Senate by enticing one or more Democratic senators to take a lucrative administration job. The Senate is currently controlled by Democrats, 21-19. If the Republicans can pick up a seat, Bolling will be the controlling vote. McDonnell will be looking for a Democratic senator who holds a seat that Republicans can likely carry in an open-seat election. His two best targets may be Sen. Ed Houck (D-Spotsylvania) and Sen. Ralph Northam (D-Norfolk). The task will be complicated by the fact that Republicans will likely have trouble holding the Northern Virginia seat vacated by Attorney General –elect Ken Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli barely held it in 2007 as an incumbent. The man he beat for attorney general, former Del. Steve Shannon, is rumored to be a likely candidate for the seat.

10. Redistricting could get ugly – The General Assembly that will conduct redistricting in 2011 is now in place. Republicans will have about 60 seats, counting the two independents who routinely vote with them, in the House. Currently Democrats control the Senate. This would be the first redistricting conducted with opposing parties controlling the two chambers. The comity that usually prevails – the House doesn’t mess with the Senate redistricting plan and the Senate leaves the House plan alone – could fall apart. The technology is in place for the House Republicans to do an even more thorough job of partisan gerrymandering than they did in 2001. But the Senate would have to go along. Similarly, any Senate redistricting plan would have to go through the Republican House – and be signed by Republican Governor McDonnell. The Democrats best chance to get a fair redistricting plan might be just to reject everything that comes out of the House and the governor’s office and take their chances with the federal courts. But it’s more likely that some Democratic senator will be willing to cut a deal – selling out his House colleagues – for the promise of a safe district.

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