On Tuesday—on the anniversary of President Obama’s election—Republicans won significant victories in a handful of off-year elections around the country. In particular, they won both open governor seats. In Virginia, Republican Bob McConnell beat Democrat Creigh Deeds by a whopping seventeen points. In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie beat Democrat Jon Corzine by a smaller, but still comfortable margin. Maine voters, meanwhile, passed Question 1, overturning a state law allowing same-sex couples to marry. All of which prompted Charles Krauthammer to say what had happened “completely explodes the mythology of the meaning of the 2008 election.” Is this the beginning of a backlash against the Democratic victories of last fall? Is it a preview of what’s to come?
In a sense, maybe. But it doesn’t mean the Republicans are about to make any real comeback. As I’ve argued before, the Democrats are likely to lose a significant number of seats in Congress in 2010 as voters naturally become disillusioned with the administration, especially without Barack Obama on the ballot to bring people to the polls. And while you can argue that President Obama has quietly accomplished a lot, he still hasn’t delivered on his most visible campaign promises—and unemployment is still high. The party in power almost always loses ground in the midterm elections anyway.
But we shouldn’t read too much into these elections, as Jon Stewart pointed out on The Daily Show earlier in the week. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has a point when he dismisses the losses as “two very local elections.” The gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia are hardly a barometer for the mood of the country on national issues. As Nate Silver points out, President Obama’s approval rating is still strong in both places, which suggests that the races weren’t a referendum on Obama’s policies. And although the same-sex marriage law was voted down in Maine, as Silver says, it may be simply be due to low turnout among its supporters. In the long run, as I have argued, support for same-sex marriage is growing across the country.
While the Republicans will probably make gains in 2010, it won’t be enough for them to gain control of either house of Congress. The demographics are against them, as the country become less rural and less white. As I have written before, by shifting to the right, the Republican Party has effectively doubled down on its admittedly passionate, but shrinking base. While it’s difficult for both parties to appease both moderates and their core voters, the very passion of the conservative wing of the Republican Party—what has become Sarah Palin’s wing—makes the task ever harder for Republicans. The struggle for control of the Republican Party has already resulted in the loss of a relatively safe seat in New York’s much talked about 23rd District, where conservatives refused to support a moderate Republican who would likely have won—and more casualties are sure to come.
So it would probably be a mistake to see this week’s elections as the leading edge of a building Republican backlash. But it may nevertheless make the more centrist “blue dog” democrats to worry about their own seats and divide an already fragmented Democratic party even further. So the real issue now may be whether the Democratic majority that controls our national government can actually get anything done.