Friday, November 11, 2005

Analysis: Temporary bragging rights for Democrats

Analysis: Temporary bragging rights for Democrats: "Analysis: Temporary bragging rights for Democrats
Thursday, November 10, 2005

By James O'Toole, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Democrats, savoring wins in two governor's races Tuesday, said the contests signaled an anti-Republican tide that will roll over GOP candidates in next year's congressional elections.

Republicans insisted that the results in Virginia and New Jersey said something about the idiosyncratic politics of the two states and were an unreliable guide to larger political trends.

Whatever their longer-term significance, the returns conferred at least temporary bragging rights on Democrats while providing no solace to a Republican party buffeted by the president's lagging job approval numbers, high-profile indictments and the hangover from Hurricane Katrina, the failed Harriet Miers nomination and other controversies.

"The worn-out rhetoric of the Republicans clearly failed," said Bill Burton, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "If you look at Virginia, for example, you had commercials right out of the old Republican playbook -- tax cuts, the death penalty -- you had a visit from George Bush. The Republican still lost."

"The Democrats say they're a big indicator, and I agree that they're a big indicator," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the House GOP campaign. "They're a big indicator just like they were in 2001" -- a reference to another Democratic Virginia-New Jersey statehouse sweep that was followed by Republican gains in the following year's congressional races.

Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, pointed out that Virginia has a recent history as a contrary mirror of national trends. Following each presidential election since 1976, Virginia has elected a governor of the opposite party of the White House winner.

In New Jersey, where the victory of Sen. Jon Corzine had been seen as a surer thing than the Democratic win in Virginia, the governor's race was dominated by personal attacks that had little to do with partisan issues at the national level.

"This was a very peculiar race," said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "Neither candidate would have been his party's nominee if they weren't independently wealthy. It got very personal."

Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, said of the New Jersey and Virginia contests, "I think they were mainly about themselves. Remember that both of these states went Democratic four years ago and that didn't help Democrats two years ago."

Dr. Black said that a more telling political barometer for 2006 would be the trajectory of President Bush's approval ratings over the coming months.

"That's the real thing to watch," he said. "If it remains as low as it has been, the Republicans are going to be hurt next year."

The president's last-minute campaigning didn't provide any apparent help for the GOP candidate in Virginia, Jerry Kilgore, allowing Democrats to portray the president as a devalued political asset. The Huffington Post, a liberal blog, gleefully headlined, "Bush is a political toxin for Republicans."

Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, noted that U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., didn't plan to join the president on a visit to Pennsylvania tomorrow and suggested that was evidence of the senator's wish to put literal and figurative distance between himself and the president.

Virginia Davis, communications director for Mr. Santorum's re-election committee, dismissed that contention. She said Mr. Santorum had a long-standing commitment to address a veterans organization in Philadelphia at the same time as Mr. Bush's trip tomorrow to Tobyhanna Army Depot in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Dr. Black, the Emory scholar, said that while the Virginia race may not say much about the 2006 elections, it could have implications for the 2008 presidential contest in confirming the popularity of Mark Warner, the outgoing Democratic governor who was seen as one of Gov.-elect Timothy Kaine's strongest assets.

"I'd say the biggest thing is that it elevates Warner on the national level," said Dr. Black. "The big loser [Tuesday] night was John Edwards, because the presidential primaries are not big enough for Warner and Edwards."

Dr. Black said the results serve to vault Mr. Warner ahead of the former vice presidential candidate as the chief Southern moderate rival to Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic nomination battle.

Several analysts said that even if the two states' contests turned on local rather than national factors, they would still reinforce the perception of overall Democratic momentum.

"From that sense, going into it, the status quo favored the Democrats," said Mr. Weingart. "It's a pretty stunning change in the mood of their two parties from just a year ago when the Republicans thought they had a permanent majority and the Democrats were very despondent."

"What it does do is give us a huge morale boost ... a real boost in raising money and recruiting candidates," said Mr. Singer.

(Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at or 412-263-1562.)"

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