Most of the country probably didn't notice. Unless you live in Virginia, New Jersey, a couple areas in New York, or maybe even Maine or Washington state, it's quite possible you heard little about Tuesday's elections. But to the chattering class of D.C., it is likely that the rest of the week, maybe even longer, will be spent reading the entrails of this off-year election.
To save you some time, let me sum up all the coverage for you. Republicans won gubernatorial seats in Virginia and New Jersey by quite a bit. Republican Mayor Bloomberg kept his seat in New York City, but it was a lot closer than most expected. In New York's 23rd Congressional District, a Democrat won even though polls had consistently shown the Conservative (a third party candidate) with a solid lead. Maine rejected a gay marriage law and Washington expanded domestic partnership rights for gay couples.
What does it all mean? Republicans are declaring a comeback -- proof that the nation has turned on Obama, his policies, and the role of government in almost anything. They see a resounding referendum that the country is tired of Democratic leadership. Democrats are excusing the losses due to weak candidates and historical precedents in those states of poor performance in off-years; they're also touting the 23rd Congressional District and Bloomberg's weaker than expected performance as proof that the president and the Democrats still get it and have public support, or at least most of them.
I think there is a different lesson here -- one I have been thinking about a lot lately.
People don't care about Washington, D.C. as much Washington, D.C. thinks people care about it.
In fact, I think as people continue to see so much of politics as usual in this town -- partisan bickering and big money buying votes -- they are increasingly likely to vote against whatever represents the old politics for them. Obama campaign rallies in Virginia and New Jersey were not enough to convince the people there that the candidate with a "D" beside the name would be the best choice for their state. New York's 23rd District went to a Democrat for the first time since the Civil War despite support for the Conservative, including an aggressive cable news campaign from Glenn Beck, a radio campaign from Rush Limbaugh and a visit from Sarah Palin. But high profile visits and endorsements from right wing luminaries and Republican presidential hopefuls were not enough to win a Congressional seat in one of the most conservative districts in New York state. Mayor Bloomberg is estimated to have spent over $100 million during the campaign (I saw it broken down to $170 per voter!) to win by just five points while his nearest challenger only spent one-tenth of that amount. Democrat Jon Corzine spent 25 million of his own dollars to outspend the Republican candidate in New Jersey, but it wasn't enough to counter the popular reaction to another Wall Street tycoon wanting to keep buying political power.
I think people are tired of the power of money and the grip of power in politics. After 30 years in Washington, D.C., I know I'm tired of seeing the kind of influence money has in politics and was glad to see it resisted in several of the election results. I am sick of hearing the rants and raves of talk show hosts and demagoguery in politics, and the people of New York's 23rd District showed quite clearly that they were not going to be steamrolled by it. One year ago, the majority of the people in this country voted for "a change they could believe in," and many are still waiting.
The importance and impact of a very few elections this week has already been greatly exaggerated. But the signs of discontent go far beyond the preference for one party over another; they indicate a deeper rejection of old politics. That discontent will soon turn into more cynical withdrawal unless people begin to see a "new politics" worth their energy and involvement. But that new politics will never exist if we simply wait for it to come from Washington; we must create it and help it grow by the social movements we build. And the voters who turned out in Virginia and New Jersey just demonstrated that they aren't convinced yet that a new politics is coming from Washington, D.C.