Off Year Races, a Mixed Bag of Tea Leaves

Off Year Races, a Mixed Bag of Tea Leaves

By David Paul Kuhn - November 2, 2009

Ronald Reagan's 1980 landslide was a year old. By November 1981, eyes were on the off-year elections. Reagan and George H.W. Bush campaigned heavily for the GOP candidates. Republicans scratched out the narrowest of victories in New Jersey. But Democrats won the Virginia governorship for the first time in more than a decade. The New York Times headline on November 5, 1981: "A Warning for the GOP."

Political observers framed 1981 as a referendum on Reagan. And in the next year's midterms, as is almost always the case, the president's party did fare poorly. The GOP lost 26 seats in the House, among other contests. But Reagan went on to win his 49-state landslide in 1984.

Reading tealeaves in off-year elections is, well, like reading tealeaves; it's not science. That never stops the political class from falling prey to this off-year tasseographic ritual.

This year feels partly like 1981. Reagan too was slumping. Reagan's approval rating first fell below 50 percent the following week. A recession was also in the making. But in the end, the misfortune of some Republicans in 1981 did not tell the fortunes of Reagan.

Traditionally, the political class attempts to garner national trends from the off-year races in New Jersey and Virginia. This Tuesday is no different. The purple state, Virginia, was said to be trending blue. It's now almost assured to go red. Gubernatorial race number two is a toss up. And political observers watch to see something more. Off-year elections are to be harbingers, that is, until they are not.

In 2001, Mark Warner won Virginia for Democrats for the first time in more than a decade. A Democrat won in New Jersey as well. The blue party saw omens.

But at the time, George W. Bush had his post September 11 glow. His approval rating neared 90 percent. Bush did not campaign or participate in political ads. By 2002, Republicans went on to buck history. They won back the Senate, House seats and beat expectations in the gubernatorial races. By 2004, Bush won reelection with a majority.

In 1997, Republicans won both governorships. The GOP went into the following midterms confident. But what was said to be a referendum on Bill Clinton turned out to be a referendum on Newt Gingrich. And it was an unkind one at that. Democrats withstood midterm trends. They lost only five House seats and the Senate went unchanged.

Then there was 1993. Republicans won both gubernatorial races. The next year Republicans won back the majority in the House for the first time since 1954. Still, by 1996, Clinton easily won term two.

It's not that off-year elections are inconsequential. It's fair to say that Clinton's troubled first-year helped boost Republican Christine Todd Whitman to the New Jersey governorship in 1993. And two decades earlier, Richard Nixon's problems aided a Democrat in New Jersey and nearly sunk a Republican in Virginia. More recently, George W. Bush's troubles in 2005 greased Tim Kaine's effort.

This year, it's not a good sign for Obama that Virginia Democrat Creigh Deeds made the strategic decision to often disassociate from Obama. One year ago, Obama became the first Democrat to win Virginia since 1964. Some liberals argued that the state's political tectonics had permanently shifted.

Republican Bob McDonnell's likely victory in Virginia, combined with Christopher Christie's potential nail biter win for the GOP in New Jersey, has this White House spooked. Sunday, Obama stumped in Camden and Newark, New Jersey, for Democrat Jon Corzine--and himself.

"A year ago we went out to the polls, just like we are going to go on Tuesday and we said, ‘Yes we can,'" Obama told a packed house.

This White House knows that, fairly or not, Tuesday's elections will be read as a referendum on what occurred a year ago. It is indeed the first test of a new president's coattails. And like Reagan in 1981, Obama's are looking a little trim.

Gubernatorial races are not the only consequential off-year contests. Vacant congressional seats will be decided in northern California and upstate New York. The conservative purge of a moderate Republican in the latter race has earned outsized headlines. Mayoral races are also occurring nationwide. Maine will become the latest state to vote on gay marriage. But it's the gubernatorial races that are read for national trends, despite the inconclusive history.

Certainly, incumbency itself often proves no asset. Since 1977, in Virginia alone, the president's party has lost the off-year gubernatorial race.

More certain, the party that likes the outcome always frames the outcome as a microcosm of public sentiment. That party may be Republicans in 2009. It was Democrats in 1981.

After 1981's off-year races, Democratic pollster Patrick Caddell told the Times: ''Reagan went so far out on these elections that they had to know you don't do that without some political risks'' and ''the impact has to be negative rather than positive.''

Republicans will highlight the negative if Democrats lose both governorships. And ironically, Democrats may be highlighting Reagan.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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David Paul Kuhn

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