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2009 Election Results Show How the Context Has Changed

The discussion about whether the election results earlier this month reflected local factors or constituted a referendum on President Barack Obama creates a false choice.

[IMGCAP(1)]Candidate quality, fundraising and local issues are always significant factors in gubernatorial races. But the national political and economic environment creates the context within which those state races are fought, and the context creates a perspective that voters use to make their choices.

It is as simple as this: If George W. Bush was still in the White House, Democrats would have won the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races. In that sense, Republicans won both races because Barack Obama is president.

But local concerns undoubtedly were paramount in New Jersey, where an unpopular governor was seeking another term from voters who disapproved of his performance in office.

The state’s budgetary problems were Gov. Jon Corzine’s (D) undoing, and as Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray argued so persuasively in a post-election memo, his toll plan from last year drove turnout and produced huge majorities for Republican Chris Christie in two GOP-leaning counties, Monmouth and Ocean.

Virginia was less of a referendum because the sitting governor couldn’t seek re-election. That allowed other factors, including the context, to be more important. Bob McDonnell (R) outspent Creigh Deeds (D) on TV, and Deeds handed Republicans an issue when he botched an answer about his position on taxes.

The argument that each gubernatorial contest was simply a referendum on the president’s performance simply doesn’t hold water.

Obama’s job approval stood at 57 percent in New Jersey, so if the election in that state had been primarily about Obama, Corzine would have won. And in Virginia, one in five voters who approved of the job the president was doing voted for McDonnell.

Moreover, the victory of Democrat Bill Owens in New York’s 23rd district is further evidence that voters weren’t merely sending an anti-Obama message on Election Day. If that’s all Nov. 3 was about, Owens couldn’t have pulled out a narrow victory.

On the other hand, Owens’ victory doesn’t prove that Obama wasn’t a drag in New York, only that other factors in what was a weird race anyway trumped the national context.

The gubernatorial results should remind us that context matters and that over the past six months, the political context has changed dramatically.

In February, Democrats held on to an upstate New York Congressional seat because now-Rep. Scott Murphy (D) ran as the candidate of change and of action on the economy, while Republican Jim Tedisco ran as an opponent to the new president’s stimulus package. Did voters really want to go back to Bush, or did they want to give Obama a chance?

Now, Obama owns the economy — the rising unemployment, in particular. The deficit is growing. His health care agenda — or at least Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) health care bill — has generated emotional opposition in many quarters.

Unlike 2006 and 2008, Republicans running in 2009 didn’t have to spend all of their time during this year’s elections on the defensive because of Bush. He is finally yesterday’s news (though I expect Democrats will try to bring him back for the midterm elections).

In Virginia, McDonnell could talk about his own agenda without having to explain where he agreed or disagreed with Bush. And McDonnell interjected Democratic Congressional initiatives, particularly cap-and-trade, into his gubernatorial race every chance that he could. He tried to make Deeds embrace the national Democratic Party’s agenda or distance himself from it, knowing that either way, Deeds would lose support from liberals or swing voters.

In New Jersey, while Corzine tried to inject Bush into the race, voters clearly thought the race was about the governor. Democratic turnout was down across the board. Had Bush still been in the White House, Democratic turnout would have been higher and independents would not have gone nearly so heavily for Christie. And Corzine would have been able to make Bush a major issue.

Again, that doesn’t mean the New Jersey race was “about Obama.— But it does mean that the Obama presidency hung as a cloud over Corzine’s candidacy.

This has considerable meaning for the 2010 midterms. Now it will be the GOP who can push the “culture of corruption— argument that Democrats used so successfully in the recent past. Now Republicans will complain about high unemployment numbers, about causalities in Afghanistan and the administration’s foreign policy and about the government’s inability to get H1N1 flu shots to the American public.

Moreover, as we are already seeing with health care reform, the internal contradictions of the Democratic Party are becoming apparent. For the past year, the national media have been focused on internal Republican divisions. But now, a fracturing in the Democratic ranks is likely to give plenty of fodder for journalists, columnists and talking heads. This is likely to further erode Democratic poll numbers.

There is nothing unnatural about this, of course. It’s the inevitable result of a party gaining more than 50 seats over the past four years, including in districts that are conservative and lean Republican. And it always happens when one party controls both chambers of Congress and the White House.

So if you want to believe either that the 2009 elections were primarily about Obama or that he was irrelevant, go right ahead. But you’ll be wrong.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.