WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s political influence was on the line Tuesday in two state gubernatorial elections that could serve as warning signs for Democrats about America’s mood heading into the 2010 congressional elections.
One year after Obama won the White House in an electoral landslide and Democrats expanded their majorities in Congress, the focus was on Virginia and New Jersey, where Democratic control was in danger despite hefty campaigning by Obama himself.
Interviews with voters leaving polling stations in Virginia showed that independents — the crown jewel of elections because they often determine outcomes — broke heavily for Republican Bob McDonnell, fleeing Democrat R. Creigh Deeds.
The outcomes of the two races were sure to feed discussion about the state of the electorate, the status of the diverse coalition that sent Obama to the White House and the limits of the president’s influence on the party’s base of support.
Republican victories in one or more races could energize a party that has lost back-to-back national elections, just as it seeks to raise money and recruit candidates to prepare for next year.
Tuesday’s impact on Obama’s standing and on the 2010 elections can be overstated easily. Voters were often focused on local issues and local personalities. Indeed, most people in Virginia and New Jersey said they were not casting ballots because of their feelings about Obama.
Yet national issues, such as the economic recession, clearly were a factor, with voter attitudes shaped to some degree by how people felt about the state of their nation.
It also was difficult to separate Obama from the outcomes after he devoted much time working to persuade voters to elect Deeds and re-elect Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who was in a three-way race with Republican Chris Christie and independent Chris Daggett.
Obama campaigned in person for both Deeds and Corzine and was featured in their advertisements. He characterized the two as necessary allies in the White House’s effort to advance his plans. He also deployed his political campaign arm, Organizing for America, to try to ensure the swarms of party loyalists and new voters he attracted in 2008 would turn out.
He also sought to ensure the Democrats would pick up a vacant upstate New York congressional seat long held by Republicans. In that race, Democrat Bill Owens faced conservative Doug Hoffman.
In doing so, Obama raised the stakes of a low-enthusiasm off-year election season.
Thus, any Democratic losses would be a blot on Obama’s political standing to some degree and would signal trouble ahead as he seeks to advance his agenda, protect Democratic majorities in Congress and expand his party’s grip on governors’ seats next year.
Obama needs all the lawmakers he can get to pass his legislative priorities of health care and climate change. Defeats Tuesday could make it harder for him to persuade moderate Democrats from conservative areas to get on board. They have been hearing from voters worried about his expansion of government at a time of rising deficits.
Even before the first votes were counted, there were new signs of difficulties on health care, Obama’s signature issue. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid indicated Tuesday that lawmakers might not complete legislation this year, which would miss Obama’s deadline and push debate into the congressional election year. The congressional health care battle has been roiling the nation for much of the last half-year.
Defeats could point to future problems for Democrats, particularly in moderate districts and in swing states like Ohio, Colorado and Nevada. In 2010, most governors, a third of the Senate and all members of the House of Representatives will be on ballots.
A loss in New Jersey would be particularly disappointing for Obama because it is a traditional Democratic-leaning state with an incumbent Democratic governor.
Virginia is a new swing state and has trended Democratic in recent elections after being reliably Republican in national races for many years. It is home to a slew of northern bellwether counties filled with independents who carried Obama to victory last year, the first Democrat to win the state in a White House race since 1964.
Exit polls showed that nearly a third of voters in Virginia Tuesday described themselves as independents, and they preferred the Republican to the Democrat by almost a 2-1 margin.
In other races Tuesday, voters in the northeastern state of Maine weighed in on same-sex marriage in a closely watched initiative, and a number of cities selected mayors, including New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was heavily favoured to win re-election.