Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The good, the bad, and the upsets

By J. Kingston Pierce

Much hand-wringing and tea-leaf-reading is destined to follow yesterday’s U.S. elections. Most of those exercises are probably meaningless. Although the GOP would like to spin the capture of the governor’s mansions in New Jersey and Virginia as indicative of its comeback from Southern regional partyhood, such prognostications are more than a bit of a reach.

Virginia has not only demonstrated a habit over the last three decades of electing governors from the party that does not hold the White House, but the governor’s seat there has switched back and forth between the two major parties on a pretty regular basis ever since 1970. Former State Attorney General Bob McDonnell campaigned as a moderate Republican, and despite a brouhaha over his 20-year-old graduate thesis -- in which he “described working women as ‘detrimental’ to the traditional family ... criticized a U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing contraception for unmarried couples, and decried the ‘purging’ of religion from schools” -- he managed to duck the tarring his Democratic opponent, state Senator R. Creigh Deeds, tried to give him. McDonnell outpolled Deeds during most of that contest, and even the White House was heard recently grumbling about how poorly Deeds had followed the successful campaign examples provided by the commonwealth’s two most recent governors, Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. Deeds’ willingness to curry favor with right-learning Independents by criticizing President Barack Obama -- who last year became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia in 44 years -- and his disinterest in promoting progressive reforms probably didn’t help him drum up Democratic support, either.

The dynamics in New Jersey were rather different. Former U.S. Senator and first-term Governor Jon Corzine was down in the polling early on against his GOP challenger, ex-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie. And despite a seesawing between the two for front-runner status, Corzine was never able to pull far enough head to guarantee a hold on his job. It didn’t help any that he labored under the burden of being a former Goldman Sachs CEO, at a time when Wall Streeters aren’t exactly popular.

In both Virginia and New Jersey, exit polls showed that voters made their decisions based in some part on anxiety over the state of the U.S. economy, but in little or no part on the basis of what they think about President Obama. Republicans who want to paint yesterday’s results as some kind of referendum on Obama are definitely barking up the wrong tree.

More interesting than either of those contests, though, was the upset in New York’s northernmost congressional district, the 23rd, which has been a Republican stronghold ever since the mid-19th century. That race to fill the seat left vacant after GOP congressman John M. McHugh left to become Obama’s secretary of the Army, began as a face-off between Republican Assemblywoman Dierdre Scozzafava and attorney Bill Owens, the Democrat, but turned into a testing ground for right-wing Tea Party insurgents. Despite having been blessed with the GOP’s endorsement, Scozzafava was harshly criticized for being even more liberal than Owens, and finally dropped out of the race after a third-party candidate, accountant Doug Hoffman--who didn’t even live in the district he hoped to represent--won the endorsements of such limelight-loving right-wing pols as half-term Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and ex-U.S. Senator Fred Thompson. Even disgraced former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- who can dampen his finger and hold it in the political winds as well as the next schmuck -- switched his endorsement to Hoffman after it became obvious that Scozzafava didn’t stand a chance against someone who called Glenn Beck his “mentor.”

The supposition was that free-floating right-wing anger, coupled with the 23rd district’s history of electing Republicans, would catapult Hoffman into McHugh’s former seat; this, despite efforts by the White House on Owens’ behalf and Scozzafava’s last-minute endorsement of her erstwhile opponent. And some surveys did make a Hoffman victory appear inevitable. However, in the end Owens won with 49 percent of the vote; Hoffman trailed with 45 percent. Regardless of post-game struggles to paint Hoffman’s loss as a win -- with the supposition that it will compel the GOP establishment to tap more “ideologically pure” conservative candidates in the future -- the prospect of more Doug Hoffmans running in the future, and thus driving the already beleaguered and out-of-favor Republican Party farther and farther from the American mainstream, seems like a losing strategy. That may be especially true north of the Pennsylvania border, where, as The Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen notes today, there are “51 congressional districts representing 34 million people” and “Republicans have a whopping two seats.”

Local contests here in Seattle and across Washington state offer favorable tidings, as well. Longtime anti-tax zealot Tim Eyman’s latest ballot initiative, which would have placed a cap on public funds available to city, county, and state governments -- and thereby driven budget deficits skyward -- is going down to defeat. A referendum to expand Washington’s domestic-partnership law appears to be headed for a win, despite opposition from voters living in the state’s more conservative eastern counties. (This victory won’t make up for Maine voters repealing a state law that would make same-sex marriage legal there, but it’s a small sign of hope for equal rights supporters -- and one step toward what is likely to the nation’s eventual legalization of so-called gay marriage.) And Democratic King County Council chair Dow Constantine, angling for the county executive seat vacated earlier this year by Ron Sims (who’s now the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), declared “overwhelming victory” over his opponent, ex-TV news talking head and closet Republican Susan Hutchison. Political newcomer Hutchison’s refusal to concede the race, even though she’s behind by 13 percent or more, just demonstrates why she hasn’t the class or temperament to hold public office.

So, as President Obama today celebrates a full year since his historic winning of the White House, he can look around the country with some confidence that favorable changes are taking place, even though there’s still considerable work to be accomplished. And the rest of us can go back to our normal lives -- until the mid-term elections next year, of course.

(Cross-posted to Limbo.)

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