So last night was election night in Blarg!’s home state of Virginia, and along with New Jersey and a special election in Upstate New York made up a trio of races that were billed as bellwethers of the GOP’s strength following its bloody beatings in 2006 and 2008, as well as a referendum on Obama, which given the results is all we’ll be hearing about for the next week. But as I’m about to tell you, this isn’t necessarily the case and the reasons boil down to that most ancient adage of “All Politics is Local.” Let’s take this case by case:

Virginia: People seem to forget that, though it’s shown strong democratic tendencies in the last few elections, these were largely the results of Fairfax and Arlington pulling the strings and the state as a whole remains purple. Bob McDonnell’s victory simply reasserts the red half of the equation. In addition to Virginia already having a strong republican voting base built in, Deeds ran a very poor campaign, trying to turn a christian fundamentalist thesis McDonnell wrote 20 years ago at a christian fundamentalist college into his “macaca moment”. Unfortunately for Deeds, it was all downhill from there:  unlike George Allen before him McDonnell did a good job of explaining away the incident and was helped by it being so relatively deep in the past. Doug Wilder’s very public lack of endorsement for Deeds along with a relative lack of White House support compared to New Jersey did much to torpedo his support among African American voters. Finally, unlike Warner before him Gov. Kaine’s unspectacular yet competent term as governor left little in the way of coattails for Deeds to ride, and McDonnell successfully turned Deeds’ efforts at smearing against him by painting him as being in favor of increasing gas taxes, a serious charge especially in traffic-addled Northern Virginia. Could Deeds have been saved by further White House intervention on his behalf? Maybe, maybe not, but as I’ve shown Obama’s involvement (or lack thereof) was one of many factors, and not even the biggest one, that sealed Creigh Deeds’ doom.

New Jersey: Unlike Virginia, the Garden State is staunchly blue. As I haven’t lived there in many years I can’t give as in-depth an analysis as I did for VA, but based on observations I can say Corzine had 3 key disadvantages that contributed to incumbent fatigue: property taxes, New Jersey’s favorite recurring issue, cropped up in a big way, a string of corruption scandals among state and local officials within and without the Corzine administration further sandbagged him, and lest we forget Corzine is a former Goldman Sachs CEO which basically means he might as well have spent the entire campaign dressed as the devil. The only reason anyone was paying attention (keep in mind two short months ago Corzine was polling even worse than Deeds) is that he managed to rather effectively slime Christie with a series of ads, thus raising himself by dragging down his opponent, and Christie also had to deal with a third party spoiler siphoning votes. Unfortunately in this case the wages of negative campaigning were a sound thumping. Obama campaigned more extensively in New Jersey than Virginia given that at no point was Deeds not doomed according to polling, whereas in the month before the election Corzine remained competitive. But considering that Obama’s approval rating in New Jersey was 57/43 in favor, the defection of democratic voters from Corzine had more to do with incumbent fatigue.

Before I move on to New York, a few points on VA/NJ taken together. This election actually follows a historical pattern (esp in Virginia, but more recently appearing in New Jersey) wherein both states punish whichever party has the white house as voters, for better or worse, attempt to seek a balance in power between the two parties. Let us not forget Mark Warner managed to snatch the governor’s mansion in Virginia in 2001 at the height of bush’s post-9/11 popularity.

New York (23rd District): Ok HERE’S the really interesting tale, a sweeping epic full of ups and downs that I will now attempt to give you all the 15 second version of:

Obama taps republican representative of an upstate NY district to be army secretary. A special election follows. The Democrats tap a rather unspecatcular accountant (Owens) to run, while the GOP chooses a rather liberal woman (Scozzafeza) from their own ranks. The conservative party runs a candidate (Hoffman) of their own, who becomes a magnet for disenchanted GOP base voters turned off by their own pick. This being one of the few off year races it quickly nationalizes and attracts the attention of such “luminaries” as Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty, who endorse Hoffman. The national GOP follows shortly thereafter and basically throws Scozzafeza under a bus as she descends to third place in almost every poll. Seeing the writing on the wall, she then withdraws and endorses the democratic candidate the weekend prior to the election. Despite strong polling and national attention for Hoffman, Owens becomes the first democrat to represent the district since the civil war.

Now, here’s where the republicans need to worry, and for several reasons. One of the reasons Owens won was due to the fact that Hoffman, though attracting much funding an attention as a conservative folk hero, was TOO conservative for what is a moderately republican district. Most of his funding came from outside the district and he ran a negative campaign that concentrated more on upholding conservative values than concern with local issues. The locals, wanting someone to represent THEM and not an ideology, were less than impressed and turned to the candidate who actually knew what he was talking about.

Another big reason this loss should put a damper on the Republican victory parties: this is the 5th consecutive special election they’ve lost in a row. Gaining two governor’s mansions in one night is a good thing, but governors do not vote in congress and the GOP shouldn’t blind itself to the fact that, in spite of nancy pelosi’s best efforts to the contrary, the democrats’ majority in the house continues to expand.

Finally, the GOP needs to worry that this is the face of the shape of things to come. The conservative candidate may have lost, but conservative activists can say they successfully destroyed the mainstream GOP candidate, and Politico reported yesterday before the results came in that right wing activists are already preparing for an ideological night of long knives in 2010. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Republicans have to choose between ideological purity and actually winning elections. If the race in New York is any indication, they’ve chosen purity, and the results here speak for themselves.

And generally speaking, the off year elections don’t make for good tea leaves. As Real Clear Politics points out, there’s almost no reliable correlation between off year election results and gains/losses in either party in subsequent congressional elections. Yet considering how much will be made of the results my concern is rather high that the democrats, skittish on the best of days, will be frightened out of supporting healthcare reform.

If anyone’s reading this, please post in the comments section as I’d love to continue the conversation on the results and what they may/may not mean for the GOP and the Democrats.

EDIT: Low and behold, I refresh CNN after writing this to find their political editor basically saying the exact same thing.

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