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Associated Press/Photo by Christopher Barth

Turnabout

Campaign 2009 | Decisive Republican gains in off-year elections spell work for Democrats to win back 'change' voters

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

The Sunday before New Jersey picked its next governor, President Barack Obama tried to recapture his 2008 campaign mojo:

"We will not lose this election if all of you are as committed as you were last year," Obama predicted to 11,000 supporters in Newark.

Just days later the result was clear: They weren't.

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With Chris Christie becoming the first New Jersey Republican to win a statewide election in more than a decade, Democrats failed to duplicate their electoral intensity just one year after Obama's message of hope led to decisive victories. This time many young and minority voters stayed home while independents swung Republican.

"Obama was able to generate additional voters for himself last year, but he hasn't been able to transfer them this year," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

That this November's landscape belonged to Republicans may have ripple effects beyond the polls: Moderate Democrats watching the election returns suddenly could find themselves more skittish about supporting aggressive agendas like healthcare reform. In the Virginia governor's race, where Republican Bob McDonnell decisively defeated his Democratic opponent, voters favored the GOP candidate anywhere from 55 percent to 67 percent in congressional districts held by Democrats; three of those seats went Democratic in 2008 on the strength of Obama's victory in Virginia.

Obama seemed to sense the turning tide. His five appearances in New Jersey during the race belied repeated assertions by his staff that the elections were not a referendum on his presidency.

Christie's startling win in a deep blue state against deep-pocketed incumbent Jon Corzine portends well for Republi­cans in next year's midterms, where the bounty is much larger. History says the party in power traditionally loses seats. The question will be how many. At the top of the GOP hit list are the 49 House districts that in 2008 elected a Democrat while simultaneously backing Sen. John McCain for president. That's more than enough to wipe out Democrats' current 39-seat House majority.

But Republicans still have work to do: The GOP's popularity remains lower than that of Democrats in recent polls, and the near victory by a conservative third-party candidate in a New York congressional race proves that momentum resides more with the conservative movement than the party. But the New York race also demonstrated that infighting among conservatives and GOP moderates continues to cost elections. Tea parties and town hall protests are one thing; it's another to channel the anti--big government grassroots movement into election victories. Democrats are hoping that a fight between the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party will drain energy from the GOP during the primaries and lead to fewer Democratic losses in 2010.

What may be clearer on both sides, declared Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns at FreedomWorks: "The new political center of this country is fiscal responsibility."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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