By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Anyone who follows U.S. politics now accepts as fact the idea that the Republican victories in the off-year elections of 1993 set up the 1994 GOP landslide. According to almost all the analysis, the first real signs that Bill Clinton was much weaker politically than the national media was reporting were the elections of Republican governors in Virginia and New Jersey and Republican mayors in Los Angeles and New York City, hardly hospitable territory for candidates of the Grand Old Party.
Jumping forward 16 years, with a similar set of elections having rolled around, both parties are trying to set up the spin on next week's results. The Republicans will argue that any positive results, like winning the Virginia governorship, mean the GOP is on the comeback trail, with how far along they are being dependent on how many victories they post. The Democrats will argue that the re-election of New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, if it happens, or any other good news, means the party remains strong.
In reality, the political landscape today is quite different from what it was in 1993, particularly at the very top. Bill Clinton, who was first elected with less than 50 percent of the popular vote, was the beneficiary of a split conservative coalition, some of which backed George H.W. Bush and some of which backed H. Ross Perot. Further, the pre-election polling just before the ballots were cast showed Bush gaining until former special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh announced an "October surprise" indictment of several Reagan-era cabinet members in connection with his Iran-Contra investigation.
It can and has been argued that Bill Clinton was an accidental president, whose popularity was puffed up by an adoring national media glad to have survived the Reagan-Bush years. This is not the case for Barack Obama, the first Democrat to win the White House with a clear mandate since Lyndon Johnson did it in 1964. And that makes next week's election a real test of Obama's political machine.
As the first Democrat since Johnson to carry the Old Dominion, Obama's continuing coattails and political organization should have been well positioned to compete for Virginia's three statewide offices. In reality, the three Democratic candidates—Creigh Deeds for governor, Jody Wagner for lieutenant governor, and Steve Shannon for attorney general—have all run behind their GOP opponents throughout most of the general election campaign. And no responsible analysis suggests the Democrats will win control of the House of Delegates, where they are behind by just a few seats.
The one potential bright spot for Democrats next Tuesday is New Jersey, where embattled Gov. Jon Corzine might be able to squeak through, thanks to the presence on the ballot of a third party independent with Republican ties who is currently splitting the anti-Corzine vote.
Obama is taking a stand for Corzine, having made several last-minute trips to the Garden State to campaign for him. But in a state that has been as inhospitable to the Republicans as New Jersey has been over the last few years, the idea that the race is even close again reflects badly on the president. Were he and his agenda as popular as party political operatives would have us believe, the endgame would be unfolding in Virginia while the Democrats were cruising to an easy win in New Jersey.
Nor do the Democrats look competitive in New York City, where Republican-independent Michael Bloomberg is seeking his third four-year term as mayor. While somewhat removed from "a national Republican," Bloomberg accepted the GOP nomination and is running against a real Democrat, New York City Comptroller William Thompson. And if ever there were a place other than Chicago where Obama's push-button political machine could have an impact, could change the dynamic of a race, it should be New York City. So far, the race doesn't even look close.
As a popular president with a national mandate, Obama should be able to demonstrate a positive effect on these campaigns. So far he's been nothing but a drag.