Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2009 and chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee from 1998 to 2002. He is the president of Main Street Advocacy.
The 2009 off-year elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and New York's 23d Congressional District offer a small snapshot of the current views and motivations of the American electorate. While there may be a desire to extrapolate the events of Nov. 3, 2009 into a prediction of what will happen on Nov. 2, 2010, that is impossible. A year is an eternity in politics, and there are many variables that will affect the mood of the electorate: Where will unemployment be? How will healthcare reform turn out? What will be the status of Afghanistan and Iraq 12 months from now? Will the administration face a natural disaster or a foreign policy crisis? If so, how will it respond?
Nevertheless, voters this past week sent many messages to the political establishment in both parties that should be heeded. Here are seven key lessons:
1. Voter enthusiasm among Democrats, particularly the young voters and African-Americans who catapulted Barack Obama and the Democrats to power in 2008, has waned. Much of the Democratic energy over the past couple of election cycles has been fueled by antipathy to George W. Bush and his administration. With Bush gone and the Democrats in control, that energy is gone as well. It has been replaced by aroused Republicans and independents, tea parties, and angry taxpayers.
Elections are determined by who shows up, not who is registered. In Virginia, Republicans and conservative independents dominated the turnout, sweeping in the entire statewide GOP ticket by a wide margin and winning six additional seats in the State House. Independents, who in 2008 had split evenly between the parties, went 2 to 1 for the Republican ticket.
Put into historical context, the Virginia results should be no surprise. The party out of the White House has now won nine straight elections for governor there.
In New Jersey, Democratic turnout among minorities dropped precipitously, and independents and "blue-collar Reagan Democrats" voted to elect a Republican governor.
Voter anger is directed against the political establishment, which happens to be dominated by Democrats. However, it would be a mistake to read this as a pro-Republican trend.
2. A much closer than expected New York mayoral win for Michael Bloomberg, and an insurgency against the GOP House candidate chosen by party bosses in New York's 23d district demonstrate that voter anger can turn on Republicans and incumbents in general. In Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell was able to focus and unite voter frustrations against the Democratic ticket.
The challenge for Republicans is to unite this voter frustration under their banner to be successful in 2010. In the New York House race, the Republican nominee, a state assemblywoman selected by party leaders, was rejected by conservatives, who attracted national attention to third-party conservative nominee Doug Hoffman. After weeks of negative attacks from the Democrats and the conservative, the GOP nominee withdrew and endorsed Democrat Bill Owens. National Republicans endorsed the conservative candidate, but North County voters selected a Democrat by four percentage points, the district's GOP registration edge notwithstanding. It was the first time in over 100 years the voters there had elected a Democrat. The lesson for Republicans is that when they can unite and direct voter anger against Democrats, they win. When they can't, voter discontent can be redirected against established Republicans through bitter primaries or third-party efforts, and they lose. The race also illustrates that even in safe GOP areas, conservatives need moderate votes to win.
3. Democrats control both Houses of Congress and the presidency, so voter anger and frustration are unlikely to be directed at Republicans. Historically, the party of the president loses seats in the mid-term. Only three times in the last 150 years has the president's party picked up House seats in the mid-term.