Centrist Democrats Beware!

Centrist Democrats Beware!

By Jack Kelly - November 8, 2009

Why should I die on this hill he's chosen?

If you were a cavalryman with Custer at the Little Big Horn on the afternoon of June 25, 1876, it was a little late to be asking this question.

But if you're one of the 84 Democrats who represent districts carried either by George W. Bush in 2004 or John McCain last year, the time to ponder this is before casting a potential career-terminating vote on health-care "reform."

The gubernatorial elections Tuesday in Virginia and New Jersey were, for Democrats in swing districts, either a nightmare or a wake-up call, depending upon their state of wakefulness.

In Virginia, a "purple" state Barack Obama won by 7 percentage points last fall, Republican Bob McDonnell crushed Democrat Creigh Deeds by nearly 18 points.

In New Jersey, a deep "blue" state Mr. Obama won by 15 percentage points, Republican Chris Christie ousted Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine (who outspent him by more than three to one), 49 percent to 45 percent, with independent Chris Daggett winning 6 percent.

The White House says both races were decided by local factors, that neither should be seen as a referendum on the president or his policies.

But you, swing-district Democrat, you know that's just spin. You remember that four years ago, when Democrats won the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, Rahm Emanuel, now the White House chief of staff, heralded them as the beginnings of a national trend toward the Democrats (which they turned out to be).

Mr. Corzine was arguably the most unpopular governor in the country, quite capable of losing in a heavily Democratic state all by himself. In the end, that's what I think happened. Mr. Obama shouldn't be blamed for his defeat.

But Mr. Obama didn't help, either. He campaigned hard for Mr. Corzine, appearing with him three times in the final two weeks of the campaign. Mr. Corzine lost by a slightly larger margin than he was trailing in polls at the time the president began his campaign push.

So if you get in trouble with your constituents, swing-district Democrat, can you count on the president to bail you out? The evidence from New Jersey suggests no.

But it's the results in Virginia that more greatly concern you. That' s because the Old Dominion is a swing state, like the district you represent.

Mr. Deeds had been sinking like a stone in the polls for a month and the White House publicly washed its hands of him two weeks before the election. Mr. Deeds was losing, two "senior White House officials" told The Washington Post, because he didn't tie himself closely enough to the president and his policies.

Whatever Mr. Deeds' shortcomings might be, he wasn't the only Democrat in Virginia who suffered. For the first time in modern history, one party, the GOP, now controls all statewide offices. And the Republicans gained six seats in the House of Delegates, to take a 59-39 edge. (Two independents usually vote with the GOP.)

The economy was the biggest concern for voters in both New Jersey and Virginia, according to exit polls. But in Virginia health care was the second-largest issue.

Three freshmen Democrats were elected in Virginia last year. In the 2nd district, Glenn Nye won by 5 percentage points. Mr. McDonnell won there by 24 points Tuesday. In the 5th, Tom Perriello won by two- tenths of one percentage point. Mr. McDonnell won there by 22 points. In the 11th, Gerry Connolly won by 12 points, Mr McDonnell by 10. And in the 9th, represented since 1982 by Democrat Rick Boucher, Mr. McDonnell won by 34 points.

Even Mr. Boucher has to wonder how often he can vote for something his constituents strongly oppose and expect to be re-elected.

Scott Rasmussen was the pollster who most accurately predicted the result in New Jersey. His polling indicates 42 percent of Americans favor Obamacare; 54 percent oppose it.

Politicians tend to prefer their perpetuation in office to passage of any particular bill. The Chicago Way is to get the votes necessary through bribery and intimidation. But congressmen cost more than aldermen, and scrutiny is greater on the national stage.

Besides, it is both unseemly and ineffective to bully from a position of weakness.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

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