Tonight’s election results may not contain any tea leaves for the future. Off-year elections tend to favor the party that is out of power so it should be a good not for Republicans. But, it might also be the night the GOP, drawing the wrong lessons, heads over the cliff.
Only two governorships are up for grabs, Virginia and New Jersey, and the GOP should pick up both of them. In Virginia, in each of the last eight elections, the party that won the White House the previous year has lost the Governor’s race. Democrats have controlled the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond for the past eight years and have largely failed to bend a GOP-controlled legislature to the common effort. On top of that, the Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds, is by all accounts a decent man who has run a terrible campaign. His opponent Bob McDonnell, a Notre Dame graduate who criticized his alma mater for inviting President Obama, should win in double digits. The key thing to look for? Do the Democrats continue to control one of the houses of the state legislature because that body, along with the new Republican Governor, will be charged with redistricting after next year’s census.
In New Jersey, I am shocked that incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine is still making a race of it. When the economy is bad, it is never a good idea to be an incumbent. The only thing worse in the current political climate would be, I don’t know, being a former Wall Street banker. Corzine is both. New Jersey is a blue state, of course, so if the Democrats nominate the Tin Man he would start at 45 percent. A third party candidate makes the race competitive but look for Corzine to lose narrowly.
The most interesting race is in New York twenty-third congressional district. There, the candidate for the Conservative Party garnered so much money and attention that the GOP’s moderate candidate had to drop out last weekend: The New York Republican party, the party of Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller, could not be more dead. This is a Republican district: Although it voted for Obama last year with 52 percent of the vote, it has been represented in Congress by a Republican for more than one hundred years. The internal fighting within the GOP is the only reason the Democrat has a shot. The Conservative candidate, Doug Hoffman, should win handily.
The key will be what lesson the GOP takes from its victory in NY-23. If they conclude that the way to win is to nominate only candidates who meet the standards of party orthodoxy set by their increasingly rabid base, watch for them next to go after Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is facing a primary challenge from a more conservative Marco Rubio. Republicans that back President Obama’s anticipated effort to enact immigration reform will be targeted. Any candidate who is concerned enough about the deficit to contemplate raising taxes can kiss their GOP future good-bye. &c.
Currently, 20 percent of the American electorate identifies itself as Republican. The populist rage against the bailouts and the health care bill is coming partly from conservative Republicans and also partly from Independent voters who backed Ross Perot. (How easy it is to forget that he garnered 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential election.) These Independent voters are those most likely to be swayed by an economic turnaround that appears to be gaining steam. Combined, conservative Republicans and Independent Perotites may be able to dictate the outcome in an upstate New York, off-year congressional race, but it is difficult to see how they can bring back centrist voters nationwide who have been tilting left anyway. If Republicans think Doug Hoffman is their future, they are on a path towards further marginalization.