AP Analysis: Nervous Voters Send Message to Obama
Independents who supported Obama broke heavily for Republicans Tuesday, helping the GOP win marquee governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey. And the coalition of younger, minority voters who powered Obama's victory last year was replaced by an electorate that was noticeably whiter, especially in Virginia, where Democrat Creigh Deeds lost in a landslide.
Yet Democrats weren't the only ones in danger, as voters also vented their frustration at incumbents and party insiders.
In upstate New York, Democrat Bill Owens won a House seat held for decades by Republicans in a special election dominated by a fierce intraparty GOP split.
There, conservatives and national Republican figures led by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin helped force out Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, the Republican candidate chosen by GOP county chairmen, in favor of Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. The conservatives were incensed by Scozzafava's support for abortion rights and gay marriage.
In New York City, independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg barely won a third term against a little known, poorly funded Democratic challenger. Polls going into the election showed voters generally approved of Bloomberg's job performance but resented his aggressive effort to get the city's term limits law lifted and his expenditure of as much as $100 million of his own money to stay in power.
To be sure, each race was as much about local issues as about firing warning shots at the politically powerful. But taken together, the results of the 2009 off-year elections could imperil Obama's ambitious legislative agenda and point to a challenging environment in midterm elections next year.
"In bad economic times, people don't like the politicians who are holding the reins of power," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. "For Obama, it means the 2008 election was not a key to everlasting success. It was the first step in an ongoing journey, and he's going to have to work very hard to continue earning voters' trust."
For now, Obama must worry about the impact of the 2009 contests on health care reform, his signature legislative priority.
Earlier Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said a vote on health care may not happen before the end of the year -- a sign that some Democrats don't feel confident tying themselves to Obama and casting a controversial vote for his reform effort.
In the longer term, Democrats must figure out how to defend Senate seats and hang onto dozens of House districts they won in 2006 and 2008 that could be imperiled now.
Party strategists worry the Obama voters who helped elect Democrats up and down the ballot last year may sit out the midterms because the president isn't on the ballot, or because they're frustrated he's failed to bring the fundamental change to Washington that he promised.
Democrats must defend as many as 60 marginal House seats next year, many in districts the president lost or carried only narrowly in 2008, as opposed to about 40 for Republicans.
Tuesday's results also pointed to a somewhat reinvigorated Republican Party after it had been left for dead a year ago. That's largely thanks to independents, the fastest growing voter bloc, and the most notoriously fickle.
In Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell won a whopping 66 percent of the independent vote, helping him bury Deeds, who got just 33 percent. Obama narrowly carried independents in the state last year, helping him become the first Democrat to win the state in a presidential contest since 1964.
In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie won a much tighter race against incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, largely on the strength of independents. Christie won 60 percent of the independent vote after Obama won a majority of independents last year.
The GOP brand is still weak -- several recent polls show the percentage of voters calling themselves Republicans has dipped into the low 20s -- and the breakaway conservative movement seen in the upstate New York congressional race could further erode the party's efforts to broaden and rebuild.
But the two gubernatorial victories Tuesday proved Republicans can win if they choose candidates responsive to the mood of their state's electorate.
"Republicans are a conservative party, all Republicans generally are," GOP strategist Alex Castellanos said. "The question is, can Republican candidates stand on conservative principles and win the middle? That's what McDonnell and Christie were able to do."