Current political weather reports forecast gloom and doom for Democrats come election time. The predictions are of severe changes in the climate from the triumphs of 2006 and 2008, when they took control of the Congress and won back the White House, to something considerably less favorable in 2009 and 2010. The anticipated result could be anything from a few lost Senate seats to a huge Republican comeback built on the decline in President Barack Obama's popularity. The president is now less likeable than Hillary Clinton, we're told.
Some even suggest that it is in anticipation of this defeat that the White House is moving so urgently on so many fronts, from health-care to financial-services reform. According to this line of thinking, the reconfigured Congress, with shrunken or erased Democratic majorities, will severely restrict the president's ability to advance his agenda. This week, conservative columnist George Will ran down a list of Senate races where Democrats could come up short next year and concluded, "The possibility of Republican gains, especially in the Senate, helps explain why Obama is in such a rush to remake the nation and save the planet. His window of opportunity could be closing."
But there is a fairly good chance that all the inferences being drawn are wrong. Democrats won't be running against their own diminished opportunities next year; they will be facing Republican candidates who will have to advance an agenda and defend a record. And for these reasons, the Democrats should not despair. While history strongly suggests that the party in charge of the White House will lose seats in the midterm elections, the sorry state in which the GOP finds itself leaves that outcome very much open to question.
The Democratic carnage is supposedly already playing out in the two major gubernatorial races: Incumbent Jon Corzine is in an unexpectedly tight race in New Jersey, and Creigh Deeds is trailing badly in Virginia. Today's dismal predictions about 2010 are mostly based on the atmospherics of those two races, but the prognosticators are drawing the wrong conclusions and learning all the wrong lessons. In the end New Jersey and Virginia may tell us more about, well, New Jersey and Virginia than about the Democratic prospects next year.
It is worth noting the obvious that New Jersey and Virginia hardly share the same political landscape and that their electoral outcomes are likely to reflect those differences. Despite lagging badly in the polls for most of the race, Corzine is likely to be re-elected in the Garden State for two main reasons. First, New Jersey is now an unmistakably Blue State -- while voters there like to flirt with Republicans out of habit, they eventually revert to the norm, and that means voting Democratic these days. Second, Corzine, in the face of huge unfavorables -- 56 percent disapproval -- has mounted a fierce campaign that has pretty much erased his deficits in the polls. The assault has been tough, nasty, and relentless. Corzine's most recent ad makes fun of his GOP opponent, former federal prosecutor Chris Christie, by playing the fat card. The ads insert the girth issue into the campaign with a little double entendre about Christie "throwing his weight around" to avoid traffic tickets. After trailing his GOP opponent most of the summer, Corzine has finally pulled even and ahead in some polls -- with a little help from independent, third-party candidate Chris Daggett, who is draining support away from the Republican side of the ballot.
Virginia, on the other hand seems lost for the Democrats. At its core, Virginia remains a red state, despite the recent Democratic successes in the races for governor, senator, and the surprising Democratic win for president in 2008. But more important, Deeds, a state senator, has been outclassed on the campaign trail by his GOP opponent Bob McDonnell. Deeds has muddled his message, and he has run away from the president and the national Democratic Party. He has been wrong-footed on so many issues that it is amazing that he is still within single digits of McDonnell.
Given that the New Jersey and Virginia races say so little about each other, it's hard to imagine that they will really say much about anything else.