WASHINGTON — Democrats are looking today’s few elections straight in the eye and seeing potential for embarrassment.
In Virginia, Democrat Creigh Deeds is praying for a miracle as polls show Republican Bob McDonnell running away with the governor’s race. In New Jersey, polls still show a dead heat in the governor’s race, but Republican Chris Christie is showing signs of momentum against incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine.
And in New York’s 23rd congressional district, the departure of the Republican from the race means that the Conservative has the right side of the electorate all to himself – and a head-to-head matchup against the Democrat in a Republican-leaning district. The few polls taken since the Republican dropped out show Conservative Doug Hoffman ahead.
NY-23 could wind up being a boon to Democrats – but in the short term, if the Democrat loses, it’s a loss. The Democrats’ only certain bright spot today is that they are set to win the special election to fill the House seat for California’s 10th District. But no one expected otherwise, and so the Democrats get no bounce.
If Republicans sweep the Big Three, they will be jubilant. It’s been one year since the Democrats had their second big election in a row, seizing the White House and building big majorities in the House and Senate. Now, the Republicans will say they’re back. That will help build momentum toward midterm elections next November, and it could help with recruitment against Democrats in districts won last fall by the Republican presidential nominee, John McCain.
A “throw the bums out” mind-set is growing among voters, which is bad news for all incumbents – but especially bad for the party that has more incumbents, the Democrats.
Losing the two governors’ races would be hard for Democrats to sugarcoat. “In New Jersey and Virginia, they [would] say that this is about local politics and not national politics,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Indeed, the big issue in New Jersey is property taxes – the highest in the country. Governor Corzine, a wealthy former CEO of Goldman Sachs, has failed to provide major relief to property owners and has presided over the state’s budget woes. An independent candidate in the race, moderate former Republican Chris Daggett, is polling in double digits – no doubt in part because he is proposing a 25 percent cut in property taxes.
If it were not for Mr. Daggett, Corzine would probably be sure to lose. Pollsters believe that Daggett takes more away from the Republican candidate, Mr. Christie, than from Corzine.
In Virginia, the big local issue is transportation – specifically, the state’s traffic-clogged roads. But another factor is the quality of the candidates. Former state Attorney General McDonnell makes a smooth presentation, in contrast with state Senator Deeds. White House officials have made clear they believe Deeds has run a mediocre campaign, and while President Obama has done some appearances for him, Mr. Obama and Deeds have not been joined at the hip.
The story in New Jersey is different. Obama has made several high-profile appearances with Corzine, including two on Sunday, and Corzine has campaigned as if it’s a Corzine-Obama ticket. If Corzine still loses, the Democrats will try to play down his connection to Obama.
The story with the biggest legs coming out of today’s elections may well be NY-23. Forces outside the mainstream “let’s build a big tent” GOP – hard-line conservatives, antitax tea partiers, libertarians – essentially drove Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava out of the race. Yet this is a district that Obama won a year ago by five points.
If the Conservative candidate, Mr. Hoffman, wins today, that is likely to embolden conservatives around the country to rise up against other moderate Republicans, even those who are a good fit for their districts. That, in the end, would be welcome news for the Democrats.