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First thoughts: Last night's lessons

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Last Night's Lessons: What a difference a year makes. Exactly a year to the day when Barack Obama celebrated his presidential victory in Grant Park and Democrats picked up additional seats in the House and Senate, Republicans are now basking in their gubernatorial sweep from last night. In Virginia, as expected, Bob McDonnell (R) crushed Creigh Deeds (D). And in that close contest in New Jersey, challenger Chris Christie (R) bested incumbent Jon Corzine (D). Yet in perhaps the most surprising result of the night, Bill Owens (D) ended up beating third-party candidate Doug Hoffman in that NY-23 special election after conservatives forced the moderate GOP nominee to withdraw from the race. As we've written, the lessons from last night's contests have been evident for quite some time. And how 2010 and 2012 turn out could very well depend on which party does a better -- or poorer -- job of learning from them.

*** Lesson No. 1: Democrats Lost Indies: For the White House, last night's exit polls confirmed that the outcomes weren't exactly a referendum on President Obama. But they also provided some clear warning signs for the president and the Democrats. Per the exits, 60% in New Jersey and 56% in Virginia said Obama wasn't a factor in their vote. Moreover, Obama's approval in Jersey was 57%, matching the percentage he won in the state in 2008. And Obama's approval in VA was 48%, down from the 53% he won in the state in 2008. But here are the warning signs: Christie won independent voters in New Jersey by 30 points (60%-30%) after Obama won them 51%-47% last year. And in Virginia, McDonnell won indies by 33 points (66%-33%) after Obama won them 49%-48% last year. Understanding why campaigns win or lose is sometimes a simple thing -- it's about the middle, it's about independents. Indeed, it's one of the oldest rules of politics.

*** Lesson No. 2: Obama's Base Is No Longer Fired Up And Ready To Go: While last night wasn't a referendum on Obama, Creigh Deeds probably wishes it was; he might have performed better. According to the exit polls, just 10% of the voters in Virginia were under the age of 30, down from 21% last year. What's more, McDonnell won 18-29 year olds, 54%-44%. Also in Virginia yesterday, African Americans made up 16% of the vote, down from 20% last year. And then there's this: 51% of yesterday's voters in Virginia said they voted for McCain, while just 43% said they voted for Obama. Folks, Obama won this state last year by a nearly 53%-46% margin.

*** Lesson No. 3: Incumbents, Watch Out: Another takeaway from last night was that it wasn't a good night to be an incumbent -- or a wealthy self-funder. After outspending his GOP opponent 3-1 (and 2-1 when you included money from the parties), Jon Corzine lost in New Jersey. More surprisingly, Michael Bloomberg (I) won by only five percentage points after spending some $100 million (!!!) against his under-funded Democratic challenger. The House, Senate, and gubernatorial incumbents running for re-election next year better figure out how to run as the outsider.

*** Lesson No. 4: Ideological Civil Wars Don't Help You Win Elections: In NY-23, Republicans snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in a district they've controlled since the 19th century after prominent conservatives -- Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Club for Growth, Tea Party organizers -- backed the more conservative candidate (Hoffman), which eventually forced the moderate GOP nominee (Scozzafava) to withdraw from the race. That enabled the Democrat (Owens) to win, 49%-45%, with Scozzafava becoming the spoiler by getting 6%. Ponder this: Was it a better night to be a Republican running toward the middle, or a conservative running on base issues? Consider the NY 23 result and the fact that BOTH anti-tax initiatives on the ballot in Maine and Washington went down... Also consider that McDonnell and Christie didn't run AGAINST the president but hugged the middle; Christie's victory speech, in fact, was a page out of the Obama playbook. (Literally, he used the phrase "turn the page" and said hope and opportunity a few times). By the way, the GOP now controls just two out of New York's 29 congressional districts and it has lost six seats Upstate NY since 2006. It holds no seats in New England, just one in traditionally conservative Upstate New York, and one out in Long Island.


Video
: Chuck Todd breaks down the 2009 election results and what they mean to President Obama and the Democratic Party.

*** History repeats itself: After a while, you can't dismiss these trends: Yesterday became the NINTH-consecutive time (since 1977) that the party that won the White House lost Virginia's gubernatorial contest the following year. And yesterday became the SIXTH-consecutive time (since 1989) that the party controlling the White House lost New Jersey's gov race. Whether due to buyer's remorse, happenstance, or a combination of the two, those trends should give all us pause in making broad statements about last night's two contests -- and what they mean for the White House, the midterms, or the next presidential contest.

*** Hailing Haley: If there was one big winner from last, it was Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) and his Republican Governors Association. In what turned out to be a brilliant move, the RGA ran TV ads attacking independent Chris Daggett. What happened? Daggett got just 6% of the vote, which was down considerably from the double digits he was receiving in polls just a week or two ago. As one very smart Democratic pollster told First Read, Corzine's best path to victory was having Daggett get 12% of the vote, enabling Corzine to win with at 45%. As it turns out, Corzine got his 45%. But with Daggett getting only 6%, that's how Christie was able to win, 49%-45%.

*** Grading the party committees: The RGA and DCCC can both say they went 2-0 last night, as the DCCC won in NY-23 and CA-10. NRCC Chair Pete Sessions needs to hope activists are so euphoric about Virginia and New Jersey that they don't decide to hold Sessions accountable for the fact that Scozzafava turned out to be the spoiler for Hoffman. Also, DNC Chair Tim Kaine is going to have to explain how Deeds was not just outspent in Kaine's home state, but why the committee didn't step in when it was crystal clear the campaign was a problem MONTHS ago. To some Democrats, there's an appearance that Kaine's DNC gave up on Virginia so early that it created a snowball effect that clobbered the party up and down the ballot.

*** The White House/Pelosi/Reid healthcare challenge: Incumbent Democrats will read the Corzine loss and the independent-voter slaughter in both swing Virginia and blue New Jersey as a sign they need to go a LOT slower on health care and energy. The Washington Dem leadership is going to have to figure out how to convince some skeptical Blue Dogs and conservative Democrats that passing something is better than passing nothing. It's going to be an argument that heats up big time, as Democratic activists argue the Virginia result is more about a depressed base than it is about an angry middle. Pelosi didn't have the votes for health care yesterday, is she farther away today? On the other hand, does getting health care passed actually boost Obama's (and Democrats') numbers?

*** Just askin': If supporters of same-sex marriage couldn't win ballot initiatives in deep-blue California (in an election Democrats overwhelmingly won) and in Maine, where can they win? 

*** Obama's day: President Obama today leaves Washington for Wisconsin, where he will give a speech on education at 2:30 pm ET. Here's a little political trivia for you. In 2004, Wisconsin was the closest state in the presidential election, going to John Kerry by just 0.38 percentage points over George W. Bush. But, in 2008, Obama won it by almost 14 percentage points (56.2% to 42.3%) over John McCain. It was the largest margin of victory in Wisconsin by any presidential candidate since 1964 when Johnson defeated Goldwater 62%-38%. The state was also a key primary victory for Obama, whose political home state of Illinois shares a border with Wisconsin.

Countdown to MA Special Primary: 34 days
Countdown to MA Special Election: 76 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 363 days

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