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Elections Head to Photo Finish

As Election Day dawns, Republicans appear headed to a solid victory in Virginia’s race for governor, while the raucous special House election in upstate New York and the New Jersey gubernatorial contest are too close to predict with any certainty.

But regardless of how they turn out, it is risky business to view today’s key off-year contests as bellwethers for next year’s much fuller slate of elections. Or at least that’s what history suggests.

Sometimes these odd-year elections can look oddly predictive, as in 2003, when Republican gubernatorial pickups in Mississippi and Kentucky preceded George W. Bush’s re-election, and in 2005, when the Democratic candidates scored hard-won holds for governor in New Jersey and Virginia on the eve of their party’s takeover of Congress in the 2006 elections.

But the big off-year races in 2007 ended up a wash, with a Republican takeover for governor of Louisiana, a Democratic take-back in Kentucky and a GOP hold in Mississippi. And the next year, the Democrats nonetheless celebrated Barack Obama’s victory for president and big seat gains in Congress, governors’ offices and state legislative races.

That said, it will come as no surprise tonight when both parties deploy their best spin, making their arguments that the most-watched races are harbingers of things to come next year when there are 37 Senate seats (including January’s special election in Massachusetts), 38 gubernatorial seats and 435 House seats up for election.

After the huge setbacks their party endured in the 2006 and 2008 elections, Republican strategists welcome any sign that the tides are turning back in their favor. So a sweep of today’s three big races, or winning at least two out of three, is important for a party looking for bragging rights.

But this year’s big contests seem a bit too idiosyncratic to provide a single takeaway message.

Statewide Contests Overshadowed

If polls are correct, the clearest Republican victory is likely to come in Virginia, where a strong Democratic trend over the course of the decade appears to be on the verge of at least temporary interruption. GOP nominee Bob McDonnell, a former state attorney general, has busted out to a big lead in what earlier was seen as a tossup race with Democrat Creigh Deeds, a state Senator.

But McDonnell, who established his political career as a socially conservative state legislator, has played down that aspect of his persona as he has campaigned for votes in the recently Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia suburbs, instead emphasizing and lucidly explaining his positions on the state’s economy, taxes, transportation funding and other kitchen-table issues for most Virginia voters. He has run a much better campaign than has Deeds, who comes from a lightly populated area in the western part of the state and has had trouble countering McDonnell’s ties to Northern Virginia, where he grew up, and the populous Hampton Roads area to the southeast, where he lives and has his political base.

The New Jersey gubernatorial race is much more a referendum on Corzine — who has never been overwhelmingly popular and has suffered of late from terrible job-approval ratings — than on Obama, who carried the state by 16 points last year and whose continued popularity there is Corzine’s biggest hope for survival. Republicans initially touted former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie as a great recruit, but his own campaign stumbles and the lavishly self-financed campaign run by former Wall Street CEO Corzine have turned the race into a tossup. The outcome is likely to be determined by how much of the vote strays to independent candidate Chris Daggett, a former state and federal environmental policy official, and which of the major-party contenders he hurts more.

But these two statewide races have, in the campaign’s final weeks, been unexpectedly overshadowed by the New York special, which has drawn unusual attention as it emerged as a major skirmish in the “battle for the soul— of the Republican Party — between centrists and other party pragmatists who believe the Republicans must recruit more moderate candidates to win in strongly Democratic-trending areas such as the Northeast, and conservatives who say the GOP needs to field candidates who will stick to the national party’s right-ward platform and fight to convince voters that is the right direction for the nation.

Through most of the campaign, the national Republican organization played the pragmatic role, backing state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, a moderate, in her bid for the seat that nine-term Rep. John McHugh (R) vacated to become secretary of the Army. But conservative activists rebelled, citing Scozzafava’s support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage and her ties to labor unions, and aligned with accountant Doug Hoffman, the nominee of New York’s Conservative Party. Hoffman then drew the support of some big-name national conservative figures, including 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

The schism became big national news this weekend when Scozzafava, her poll numbers plummeting, dropped out of the race — and urged her backers to vote for Democratic nominee Bill Owens, a lawyer. But the National Republican Congressional Committee, which had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in local advertising supporting Scozzafava’s campaign, turned on a dime and switched its endorsement to Hoffman, who had unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination but was rebuffed by the 11 Republican county chairmen in the district.

A Year Is an Eternity

Even if the GOP gets the better of these 2009 races, any claims of major momentum heading into 2010 would require a rebuttal of a wide range of national opinion polls, the results of which suggest that the Republican Party has a long way to go in order to regain the public standing it lost during Bush’s tumultuous second term.

This summer, the GOP faithful had reason to hope that the November elections would send a clear message that the public had already lost faith in Obama and the hefty Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. After entering office in January with soaring approval ratings, Obama saw his popularity decline as his campaign promise of change met the gritty realities of the policymaking process and the nearly unanimous opposition of a determined Republican Congressional minority — who were in turn propelled by fired-up conservative grass-roots groups.

With loud voices accusing Obama of putting the United States on a path toward socialism, the president’s approval ratings dropped steadily for a while. But by the end of the summer, Obama’s approval ratings hit a plateau, with percentages in the low to mid-50s. That puts the president’s support base just about where it was in November 2008, when he won the presidency by 53 percent to 46 percent over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

That is not to say that many voters don’t have issues with Obama on policy matters. An Oct. 22-25 NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found 47 percent approved and 46 percent disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy. On the hot-button issue of health care, 43 percent approved and 48 percent disapproved. He did better, but not spectacularly, on his handling of foreign policy, with 51 percent approving and 39 percent disapproving.

And there was a potentially worrisome number in aggregate polling done so far this year by Gallup, which showed the number of self-described conservatives at 40 percent of respondents, up from 37 percent in 2008, to 36 percent who described themselves as moderate and 20 percent who called themselves liberal.

George W. Bush as Jimmy Carter

But the Republicans’ potential for growth in the 2010 elections may be held back by the fact that their party’s “brand,— which incurred major damage from the Bush years, is still held in very low regard by most voters.

The NBC News-Wall Street Journal pollsters asked respondents’ feelings about the Republican Party. Just 25 percent gave a positive response (and just 6 percent were very positive) while 46 percent were negative and 27 percent were neutral. The positive number was actually down from 32 percent in a poll taken Oct. 17-20, 2008, with about two weeks left in that year’s presidential and Congressional campaigns.

The Democrats’ October 2009 numbers — 42 percent positive, 36 percent negative and 20 percent neutral — don’t exactly rock the house, but they remain considerably better than the Republicans’.

These polling numbers, taken collectively, suggest that both parties are engaged in high-risk political strategies as they move beyond Election Day 2009 and into the bigger arena of 2010. Obama has taken on a full plate of the nation’s most contentious issues during his first year in office, greatly expanding federal spending (and debt) to address the recession and seeking major changes in the nation’s energy and environmental policies, all while dealing with the nation’s stressful military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan that he inherited from Bush. So if most voters see him as falling short when the 2010 elections roll around, his Democratic Party could suffer a serious reversal.

But the Republicans are taking a big gamble, too, in taking a confrontational approach in trying to block or slow every element of the president’s domestic agenda. If the economy reaches a recovery phase by fall of 2010, and especially if there is evidence of job growth, Democrats will freely remind voters that Republicans were quick to condemn Obama’s stimulus plan as an expensive failure — and their efforts to label the GOP as the “party of no— will gain credence among many voters.

And while Republican leaders are fond of telling Democrats that they now own all the big issues and that they need to get over blaming Bush, it would take a horrendous political collapse by Obama to make that anything but wishful thinking. Democrats for 40 years were able to make political hay out of the name of Republican Herbert Hoover, who was president when the Great Depression hit. And there are still some Republicans who are fond of reminding voters of the unpopular presidency of Democrat Jimmy Carter, nearly 30 years after he lost his 1980 bid for re-election.