If you missed out on last night's election, well, don't you know that you missed out on the most important off-off-year election in our lives? It's true! Expectations were set and memes were created and votes were cast and winners were selected and the results were a resounding... uhm: MEH? Mixed bag, really. So, hey: here's a rundown of real talk on what happened last night.
Virginia Governor's Race: So, what happens when a Democrat who lacks Barack Obama's popularity runs against a Republican who doesn't alienate Virginia conservatives the way John McCain does? The Republican wins, to the surprise of nobody who actually lives in the Commonwealth. Virginia's been recently oversold as a blue state, but let's get some perspective. In state-wide races, the closest thing the Democrats have had to a slam dunk has been Mark Warner. His fellow senator, Jim Webb, is an accomplished, intelligent, articulate man who won a tight race over a guy who used racial slurs on the stump. Warner's coattails just managed to get Tim Kaine over the line in the last gubernatorial election. Kaine's coattails obviously came with diminishing returns for Creigh Deeds.
Let's also recall that Deed and McDonnell had matched up once before, and McDonnell won. Was there any fundamental, locally-felt change in dynamic between the candidates since then? The answer is no, so similar results should have been expected. Deeds went on to compound his problems by accruing the greater share of structural campaign errors during the race. The best things Deeds thought he had going for him was a crazy thesis that McDonnell had written, and the frantic endorsements of the Washington Post. The only problems were that lots and lots of Virginia voters had no problem with McDonnell's thesis, and that outside of northern Virginia, nobody in the state gives a hot toss what the Washington Post has to say about Virginia politics.
The media will find a way to hang this one on Obama, of course, but there was no amount of Obamasauce that could have helped the hapless Deeds, and he dispensed it pretty sparingly. You might encounter someone who'll tell you that Terry McAuliffe might have fared better against McDonnell. Trust me, they are wrong.
New Jersey Governor's Race: Even though he was widely disliked in New Jersey, it's fair to say that John Corzine went down harder than expected to Chris Christie, He went into the race with a toxic 35% approval rating, and more or less waged a scorched-earth campaign, trying to drag Christie down to the same levels. It's pretty fair to say that neither candidate was too widely-beloved. Corzine ended up needing about 100,000 votes to materialize, and they weren't there, because the tone of the race encouraged their non-participation. Meanwhile, those who did embraced a New Jersey tradition that has carried a high approval rating: turning out the incumbent in the state house.
There was a not a single county in New Jersey where Corzine matched his performance in 2005. It seems to me that his best hope was for [Independent candidate] Christopher Daggett to at least perform to his polling peak, plus a little extra. That didn't happen. Daggett's fortunes faded over the last days of the campaign, and a significant number of people obviously ended up pulling the lever for Christie.
Obama was up against the odds in this race, too, but he'll rightly take the hit for the results because this was the race on which he chose to put his marker. It may be tough to imagine why, given the fact that Corzine's approval rating wasn't great, and he was running the sort of campaign Obama nominally prefers to eschew. Part of the rationale likely stems from the fact that Corzine left a Senate seat he could have stayed in perpetually to give the Democrats a gubernatorial win in 2005. On top of that, Corzine's polling tended to run ahead of approval, and, late in the game, Obama's intervention came and looked like it was helping. The White House's help brought Corzine ahead in the polls, and it looked like everything was trending in his favor. As it turns out, Obama merely inflated a bubble, which popped at the worst possible time. The fact that Obama's mojo proved to be perilously fleeting is the strongest case going in the whole "referendum on Obama" meme.
New York City Mayor's Race: This race ended up being much closer than advertised, and for about fifteen minutes last night, the gap between incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Democratic Party rival Bill Thompson narrowed to about 2,400 votes. The upset threat quickly faded, but not before some of the people who called the race for Bloomberg early had to temporarily un-call it.
It will go under-reported, but this is a good example of a race where you can fault Obama. The president demonstrated an interest in intervening in New York politics when he attempted to get dead-duck Governor David Paterson to quit the race. Obama's actions in the governor's race caused a fair share of knobby-kneed observers to pop their garters, but I'd have to say that Obama should have demonstrated the same shrewdness in the mayoral election, and given Thompson some support. As Peter Feld points out:
But the President's biggest headache is likely to be blowback from the narrower-than-expected victory of Michael Bloomberg, edging Bill Thompson by just under five points, 51%-46%, after Obama gave Thompson only the most grudging of endorsements and declined to invest any political capital in the race. Democrats are going to look at this near-miss with anger, and at a time when Obama is already under fire from Democrats for falling short of last year's promised changes, and losing ground to Republicans in NJ and Virginia, he's likely to bear the brunt of the recriminations.
That said, I can count on no hands the number of people I've met who've been willing to attest that NYC Dems have their act together. And left-leaning New York City residents are sort of mired in an existential crisis over Bloomberg, where too many people seem to view things like the revitalization of the High Line as an adequate trade-off to the fact that small businesses are closing and nobody can afford to rent an apartment. I'm not sure what's going to happen when the entirety of Manhattan's service sector can't afford to live within 50 miles of the city. Probably Bloomberg will invent some robot baristas and call it a win.
California 10th District: California Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi won a seat in Congress in a district that was traditionally Republican until Ellen Tauscher won her seat in 1997. (The special election was needed after Tauscher accepted the position of Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs in the Obama administration.) Garamendi's election represents a leftward shift in the 10th, relative to Tauscher's more moderate positions. Because a leftward political shift didn't fit any of the media's narratives, nobody did any reporting on this race.
New York 23rd District: The biggest losers of the night were the proponents of the Tea Party Revolution, who paved the way for the 23rd to be represented by a Democrat for the first time since Hadrian's Wall was built. There perhaps exists an imaginary Congressional district, bound within the networked minds of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, where Doug Hoffman could have been a big winner. In the actual district, bound by reality and physical geography, not so much. Anyway, Hoffman did a better job visiting the fantasy district than the actual one, and so Democrat Bill Owens staked a lead early in the night and held it.
This is a surprise win for the Democrats and a told-you-so victory for the Republican Party establishment, should they choose to claim it. As things stand, the Democrats will probably sit back and hope that the Tea party insurgents will keep it up, and the GOP will cross their fingers and hope that this reverses the emerging trend toward coalition fracture.
The media invested pretty heavily in this storyline, of course, and now that their exciting storyline has been stolen away, affection for Tea Party nonsense may well sour. The media loves winners, because winners have the invites to all the cool parties. What will go under-reported is the fact that while the Tea Partiers have something of an electoral strategy, mining the paranoid style of politics doesn't translate into coherent policies or a strategy for governance. Sooner or later, someone should maybe point out that you cannot ameliorate actual problems by drawing a Hitler mustache on them.
At any rate, brace yourself for a Sunday filled with dire warnings of the Democrats' imminent demise in 2010 and Obama's ousting in 2012. If anyone on any panel anywhere simply points out that the Democrats' fortunes are entirely tied to the unemployment rate -- that if it improves they'll be fine and if it doesn't they'll be doomed -- give that person a medal and invest heavily in their insights -- the end.