Lessons From Virginia & New Jersey

By Nathan Daschle, Politico - November 6, 2009

Spend enough time in politics, and you will have your share of good election nights and bad election nights. The key to surviving the bad is learning from the results without dwelling on them; look forward, not backward.

Reflecting on Tuesday’s elections, I am disappointed, but not discouraged. The losses came from two electorates with an affinity for demonstrating their independence from the White House. For 24 and 36 years straight, New Jersey and Virginia, respectively, have elected governors of the opposite party of the president. Couple that streak with the worst recession since the Great Depression, and it would have been an unprecedented upset if we had won either of these races.

Democrats need to sift through the data, analyze it, and pull out lessons that are instructive for moving forward. At the same time, it would be a costly mistake to simply assume that the Republicans’ talking points about this election are valid. There are several things that Tuesday night’s results do NOT mean:

1. They do not signal that a Republican “comeback” is imminent. Virginia and New Jersey have gone against the White House for 24 straight years. Unless there’s been some under-the-radar comeback every four years since 1985, there is no more indication of Republican resurgence today than there was last week.

2. They do not indicate that President Obama has been politically weakened. Exit polls indicate (and common sense shows) that these were isolated races that, while subject to historical trends, were not a referendum on our president.

3. They do not mean that Democrats are in trouble in 2010. To the contrary, we found some encouraging evidence in the exit polls. In New Jersey, for example, voters embraced Gov. Jon Corzine’s agenda on the economy by a 58-36 margin. He was defeated because other local issues superseded his economic agenda, but we are encouraged that voters preferred our economic message to the Republicans’ attempt to return to economic policies that put Wall Street ahead of Main Street.

There are, however, some important lessons that Democrats should take to heart:

1. Democrats still carry a burden of proof with independents and surge voters. These voters don’t want to let Republicans give tax breaks to the wealthy while working families struggle, but our incumbent governors and challengers need to underscore how they’re creating and saving jobs. There’s no question that Democrats have the right vision and plans for restoring prosperity to this country – our charge is to get our message out and, for incumbents, show results.

2. While Republicans with no solutions will continue to use federal issues as red herrings in state races, we must show at the national level that we can govern. The American people expect results. They need to see how they’re better off with Democrats in charge. I am confident that we’ll make significant progress on health reform and the economy. And in the meantime, our gubernatorial candidates must know that when their opponents try to box them in on federal issues, it’s because have no ideas on the issues that matter.

3. The Republican Party is in disarray and not remotely ready to lead. If this year taught us anything about the other side, it’s that they remain a house divided. Who are their leaders – Michael Steele, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin? What do they stand for? Bob McDonnell is a conservative who campaigned as a moderate. Chris Christie won despite himself; certainly not because of a compelling philosophy or agenda. In NY-23, the GOP civil war was on full display. A party still groping for an identity won’t attract voters to put them over the finish line.

Tuesday night was the opening battle; now starts the war. We have 37 races next year, including contests in marquee states like California and Florida. Fortunately, Democrats are well-prepared for the fight to come. In part, this is because we used our resources effectively this year: the DGA made record investments in both New Jersey and Virginia, but we resisted pressure to overspend and draw down our 2010 account.

More importantly, however, we are prepared because we have placed Tuesday in the appropriate context; the results are instructive but not foreboding. Democrats have a lot to accomplish, and so long as we continue to advance our agenda and get real results, voters will keep us in power.

Nathan Daschle is executive director of the Democratic Governors Association.

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