In politics–as the sophisticated analysts say–it is better to win than lose. So Democrats can be happy about their triumphs in New Jersey and Virginia, where their candidates won contests for governor, and they can crow about terminating California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ballot propositions (particularly the one that would have weakened the political clout of unions). Are these results a bad omen for Republicans in 2006? As several poli-sci experts have pointed out, if you look at recent off-year elections, they predict the outcome of the next election in only two of four cases. That’s as good as flipping a coin. But what was notable about these elections is that Rove-style politics did not succeed.
In Virginia and New Jersey, the Republicans campaigned mainly by hurling slash-and-burn ads at the Democrats. In New Jersey, the Republicans even went after Senator Jon Corzine, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, by putting up an ad in which Corzine’s ex-wife dumped on him. Despite this woman-scorned strategy, Corzine won.
In Virginia, GOP candidate Jerry Kilgore aired harsh spots that accused Democrat–and eventual winner–Timothy Kaine–of being a wimp on the death penalty. Kaine, a Catholic, explained that he opposed capital punishment due to his moral values but he said he would abide by state law, which allows for executions. Kilgore mercilessly bashed Kaine for holding this view; one Kilgore ad had a murder victim’s relative bitterly saying that Kaine could not be trusted on this issue. Kilgore’s campaign devoted more resources to anti-Kaine ads than spots celebrating Kilgore’s own assets.
And in the final weeks of the campaign, Kilgore tried to score points by decrying illegal immigration. That didn’t work. Nor did another move aimed at base Republican voters. Shortly before the election, Kilgore declared his support for a measure that would let gun-owners bring concealed weapons into bars. He argued this was safer for gun-owners than requiring them to leave their firearms in their cars whenever they wanted a brewski. (What’s next? Permitting guns in schools and courthouses? How about in divorce court?) Pushing the death penalty, pandering to gun-owners, screaming about illegal immigrants, and campaigning with George W. Bush (but only once, and in the last dash of the race)–none of this helped Kilgore in a Red state.
That sure ain’t bad news for Democrats. Now all they need are effective candidates like Kaine and popular outgoing incumbents like departing Virginia Governor Mark Warner, and they will sweep the nation. Seriously, it’s encouraging for Democrats that the traditional weapons of Republicans did not draw blood (at least not in a fatal fashion) in Virginia and New Jersey, states that could be crucial in the next presidential contest. And it has to worry Republicans that Bush is at this moment a dud when it comes to assisting GOP candidates. He will still be able to raise mucho money for Republicans in the 2006 contests. After all, there are plenty of grateful millionaires eager to kick back a small percentage of the large tax cuts they have received courtesy of Bush and the GOP (and a few Democrats). It’s usually not too hard for a President to be a cash machine for his party.
But the icing on the cake is a President who can hit the road, campaign with candidates of his party, and share his glow with them. Right now, Bush has less glow than a night light. If he doesn’t increase his political wattage in the coming year, one motif of the 2006 election will be whether Republicans are running with Bush or away from him.
But remember that whenever anyone discusses the coming elections in terms of national themes, moods, or issues, such talk has to be tempered by the realization that congressional elections in non-presidential years are mostly a collection of 500-odd individual races, each with their own dynamics that may defy or jibe with larger trends. Moreover, the 435 House districts are so gerrymandered that only several dozen of them are likely to be competitive. Most House seats are safe harbors. Consequently, it takes quite a national tide to push enough boats in a direction that leads to a change of control. That did happen in 1994, when GOPers seized the House for the first time in a four decades. But incumbents have done a good job of rigging the system to protect incumbents of both parties.
Still, it’s better to have the wind at your back than in your face. Democrats can celebrate. But they still need to build up their 2006 infrastructure. I’ve heard Democratic activists complain in recent weeks that there is not enough money being raised by the party and–perhaps more importantly–by outside groups for the coming elections. After funders kicked in millions of dollars in 2004 and received nothing on their investment, many are gun-shy this time around. Perhaps Democratic victories in Virginia and New Jersey will buck them up and loosen up the purse strings. There isn’t much time. And one thing is for sure: Republican strategists are scrutinizing yesterday’s results and figuring out their next whatever-it-takes strategies.