Obviously, if one party sweeps the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial contests as well as the special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District, the winning side will crow that this is the most significant political event in a half-century. And, just as obviously, if one party goes 0 for 3, the losing side will offer a dozen moderately legitimate reasons to excuse away its poor performance.
The most likely outcome this year is a split decision. I've held that view even more strongly since talking recently with top officials of the Democratic and Republican governors' associations about the contests in New Jersey and Virginia.
Democrats emphasize that the party holding the White House lost the Virginia governor's race in 1977 and in every contest since then, and lost the New Jersey governor's race in 1989 and ever since. In other words, the party that won the White House one year has lost gubernatorial contests the next year in eight consecutive elections in Virginia and in New Jersey's past five. Such a strong trend is hard to dismiss as coincidental. Some degree of buyer's remorse, disappointment, or counterbalancing seems to be at work.
Republicans point to other patterns. Virginia, which a great many analysts have held up in recent years as the best example of a previously red state trending Democratic, now seems to be moving pretty convincingly back toward the GOP. Last week, one of the most experienced political journalists in town was going on about what poor a nominee Democrat Creigh Deeds is. My impression is that Deeds isn't a particularly good or bad candidate. His chief problem is that Virginia's independents, who had been leaning strongly toward the Democrats in the last few years, are simply reversing course.
The Virginia GOP helped its prospects by nominating a far better gubernatorial candidate, former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, than it had in many years. McDonnell is conservative, to be sure, but he does not have hard edges. Style matters. Born and raised in Northern Virginia, he has been able to reduce the Democratic advantage in that critical and fast-growing region.
In New Jersey, GOP nominee Chris Christie is running under the state's public financing system, so he has had to limit his spending to just over $10 million while campaigning in the nation's first- and fourth-most-expensive media markets against a Democratic incumbent with virtually unlimited resources. To add to his degree of difficulty, Christie also faces an independent candidate who was a member of former Republican Gov. Tom Kean's administration and who has gotten some public financing. So, Christie has significant hurdles to clear. But, then again, if the GOP can't beat Gov. Jon Corzine, whose job-approval rating hasn't topped 40 percent in recent memory, can any Republican win the governorship in the Garden State?
Whatever the outcome of this year's New Jersey and Virginia governor's races, the results will depend on conflicting factors that are unlikely to be replicated in many contests next year. Beware, then, of drawing sweeping conclusions.
The special congressional election in upstate New York is looking increasingly like a two-way race, pitting Democratic nominee Bill Owens against Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman. State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, the GOP nominee, is running third and quickly dropping back even though her party has long held this district. If this turns into a true three-way contest in its final days, Owens will almost certainly win. But if Scozzafava remains almost irrelevant, Hoffman may well prevail.
One take on this race is that local Republican chieftains got caught in a time warp. Back in July, when the party's leaders tapped their nominee, picking a pro-abortion-rights, pro-gay-marriage, pro-card-check, pro-stimulus Scozzafava seemed pragmatic in a district that had voted 52 percent to 47 percent for Barack Obama. Well, that was then and this is now. They ignored the possibility of a Conservative Party nominee jumping in and eating Scozzafava's lunch.
Losing the seat would be a bit painful for the GOP but would not signal much about the party's 2010 prospects elsewhere. After all, how many states have a viable Conservative Party and how many times next year will the GOP nominate someone as liberal as Scozzafava?
In short, take all the grand pronouncements about the results of 2009's trio of high-profile contests with a hefty portion of salt.