One Down, Two to Go: The Outlook for the 2009 Elections

November 2, 2009 · 8:00 AM EST

We are still a few days away from Election Day, but party strategists, operatives and local activists are already blaming their own nominees for their defeats.

The clearest evidence that the Virginia gubernatorial race is over — apart from a blizzard of surveys showing Republican Bob McDonnell well over the 50 percent mark in the ballot test and leading Democrat Creigh Deeds by double digits in many surveys — is that White House insiders have already passed the word that it is Deeds who blew the race.

The assertion by Obama loyalists that Deeds would have done better by embracing President Barack Obama, as they say New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has, ignores the fact that Corzine comes from a more Democratic state and that because Corzine is in a multicandidate race, he may need only 44 percent of the vote to win. If Deeds gets 44 percent of the vote in Virginia, he will be soundly defeated.

If George W. Bush were still in the White House, Deeds almost certainly would be elected governor of Virginia, so it’s a little difficult to swallow the argument that national politics has nothing to do with the Virginia results. But it’s also important to note that Virginia Republicans united behind their nominee and that McDonnell has kept his focus on jobs, taxes and transportation, rather than stressing social issues.

The ability of McDonnell to roll up big margins outside Northern Virginia, against a Democratic nominee from rural Bath County, can’t be ignored, especially considering all of the growth in Northern Virginia and the hype about the region’s political importance in state races. The red parts of Virginia are acting red again, even against a Democratic nominee who was expected to have considerable appeal in those parts of the state.

In New Jersey, the battle between Corzine and Chris Christie (R) is too close to call. Late polling in the race is all over the place, from Corzine having a mid-single-digits lead to Christie having a slightly smaller advantage.

Recent polls show Independent Chris Daggett getting anywhere from 7 percent to 20 percent, a mind-boggling range. Republican attacks on Daggett in paid media seem to have driven up his negatives, which could help Christie peel off some of the Independent’s supporters.

While Christie should outperform the polls, his own numbers have eroded dramatically. Daggett is proving to be a considerable factor, and he could be Corzine’s salvation. The stronger Daggett’s showing, the more likely that Corzine earns a narrow win. Three months ago, that seemed impossible, which shows how successful the governor’s campaign has been in making Christie the issue.

It’s a widely accepted rule of politics that incumbents “get what you see” on the ballot test, winning little or none of the undecided vote. It’s also generally true, as I wrote recently, that support for Independent and third-party nominees tends to slip in the final days of the campaign, unless of course the Independent or third-party candidate has a chance to win (see New York’s 23rd district, below). Both of those factors work to Christie’s advantage in the campaign’s final days.

In any case and no matter the result, the result in the Garden State will say little or nothing about Obama.

In New York’s 23rd district, another three-way race, Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava now seems like an afterthought.

Baseball statistician-turned-political-statistics guru Nate Silver, who seems to question the integrity and veracity of every Republican or conservative poll that he doesn’t like, has raised questions about the newest Club for Growth survey, which shows Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman holding a slight lead of 32 percent to 28 percent over Democrat Bill Owens.

In fact, more than one poll (public and private) shows that the liberal Republican has slid into third place and that the race is statistically even between Hoffman and Owens. (For the record, Club for Growth pollster Jon Lerner is among the least likely pollsters to fudge numbers or manipulate data.)

The fact that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is attacking Hoffman — and that a new Club for Growth ad being aired in the district’s three major media markets attacks Owens, contrasts him with Hoffman and ignores Scozzafava — is further proof that the special election has become a two-way race between the Democratic nominee and the Conservative Party nominee.

Interestingly, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s independent expenditure campaign in the race has run three TV spots — all of which have attacked Owens but ignored Hoffman.

That strategy either assumes that Hoffman is irrelevant — a conclusion clearly not warranted by any of the recent polling or accepted by GOP operatives — or is intended to help Hoffman in the event that he emerges as the stronger opponent against the Democrat in the final days of the three-way contest. It isn’t hard to figure out what Republican strategists are doing.

Owens deserves to be favored in the race, if only because of the presence of a credible Republican and a credible Conservative Party nominee.

Democrats could win two out of the three races, but only because multicandidate contests might allow Corzine and Owens to sneak through with a minority of the vote. A win is a win, but even if that happens, it’s not great news for Democrats for 2010.

In fact, Democrats might be better off were Hoffman to win the special election in New York. Yes, that outcome would prevent Democrats from expanding their House majority, but a Hoffman win might embolden the Club for Growth and encourage conservatives to take on other Republicans who aren’t entirely pure. And encouraging a bigger GOP civil war is something that could help Democrats win more than a single additional seat in the House.