Exit polls from Tuesday’s elections suggested most voters weren't sending a message to Barack Obama. But the implications are clear: With incumbents falling and endangered everywhere, the country's economy – not sweeping health care reform – had better come first.
Democrats have very little to hang their hats on this morning. Republicans swept the country’s two gubernatorial races with Bob McDonnell trouncing Creigh Deeds in Virginia (after eight years of Democratic rule in the Old Dominion) and challenger Chris Christie ousting incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey.
Even a technically popular non-Democrat incumbent like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg needed every bit of his $100 million campaign war chest to win a narrow re-election over a decent, yet over-matched City Comptroller Bill Thompson. Such was voters’anti-incumbent fury.
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But Corzine's loss had to render a particular sting for Dems. President Obama was not on the ballot, but he campaigned extensively for Corzine -- including this past weekend. The White House reportedly dispatched former Obama campaign personnel to try to push Corzine over the finish line. Regardless, the president was much more invested in Jersey than he was in Virginia. Given the natural advantages a Democrat should have in a deep-blue state, putting so much of the president's mojo on the line makes the result look like a repudiation of Obama, even if voters said it wasn’t.
Most sobering is that the independents that fueled the Democratic takeover of the House and Senate in 2006 and 2008 surged toward McDonnell and Christie by a factor of 2-1 this time. Independents giveth -- and independents have the power to taketh away.
The one spot that gives Democrats something to smile about is the much-ballyhooed NY 23rd congressional district in New York. The civil war between the conservative and liberal parts of the Republican Party ended in a not-so-surprising result: Democrat Bill Owens eked out a win over insurgent -- and Sarah Palin-endorsed -- Doug Hoffman.
Republican Dede Scozzafava, who had dropped out and then endorsed Owens, ended up with about 5 percent, as the district elected its first Democrat since the Civil War.
The result helps Democrats in the short-run as it tips one more vote to their majority (though figure Owens to be another Blue Dog Democrat bedeviling liberals on health care). The win in New York’s 23 District also helps Democratic strategists and pundits in the long run mine their "moderates are no longer welcome in the Republican Party" storyline.
Put the largest share of the blame for that fiasco on the brain-dead Republican Party of New York. Rather than allow a primary to take place, Republicans appointed Scozzafava in a back-room deal -- sparking a conservative rebellion. Conservatives, meanwhile, might learn the lesson that -- if you do want to run a third-party candidate, you might do a better to pick someone who actually lives in the district and at least pretends to care about some local issues (Hoffman did neither).
But, the key lesson to be drawn Tuesday goes straight to the White House, and is a tough one to absorb going into 2010's midterms. Again, exit polls in New Jersey and Virginia -- and cursory evidence in some contests in suburban New York -- show that fiscal concerns of economy/jobs/taxes are far and away the uppermost concern in the minds of voters. Nothing else comes close.
That especially includes the president's pet project -- health care.
The election results will embolden Democrats already wary about certain aspects of the health care plans working through Congress. Senate Democrats facing voters next year -- like Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and Arkansas' Blanche Lambert Lincoln (from a state John McCain won by 20 points) -- will be even more opposed to a public option. As will many Blue Dog Democrats.
After Tuesday, incumbent Democrats not wishing to suffer the same fate as that of other members of their party may be united in one significant respect -- their message for the White House: Curing the nation's economic ills must come before pushing forward a complicated, out-sized health care proposal.