Off-year elections cheer Republicans but issue a caution

Three off-year elections Tuesday bolstered Republican hopes for 2010, but also issued a warning.
Republican Robert McDonnell rolled over Democrat Creigh Deeds in Virginia to end eight years of Democrat rule in the statehouse there with a crushing 66 percent landslide.
Republican Christopher Christie ousted Gov. Jon Corzine by a much smaller margin, but pulled off a GOP victory in a solid blue state.
Both Christie and McDonnell soft-pedaled social issues and campaigned on jobs and the economy. The independent voters who had given Barack Obama strong support in 2008 switched parties and backed them.
McDonnell’s victory in Virginia is seen by Re-publicans to signal a re-jection of the Obama administration’s policies by a key southern state that will give the party a boost in fund raising and revive the party’s energies for next year’s campaigns.
Corzine’s defeat presents a much cloudier picture. He had been increasingly unpopular and his negative campaigning featuring ads that callled attention to his opponent’s ample stomach apparently backfired. A majority of American voters are, after all, overweight and many may have resented the tactic. Corzine, an ostentatious marathon runner and Wall Street multimillionaire, invited rejection by asking voters to choose the candidate who had the least in common with them. To compound Corzine’s problems, the New Jersey economy is a ghastly mess.

THE WARNING came from upper New York. Democrats won a congressional seat there which had been Republican since the party was born. They lost it Tuesday because Republican activists rejected their party’s nominee and turned to a right-wing conservative who had the support of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, the editorial page of the Wall Streeet Journal, Sarah Palin, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and social issue activists from over the nation.
The voters ignored those high-profile outsiders and elected Democrat Bill Owens, increasing that party’s majority in the House.
Whether Republicans got the message remains to be seen. The Republican candidates who took the governorships away from Democrats in New Jersy and Virginia didn’t say a word about gay marriage, abortion or the other social planks in the conservative platform. They talked about what the voters were interested in: the sick economy and the mounting federal deficit — and won.
New York Republicans, in contrast, chased the moderate Republican nominee out of the race for ideological heresy. She had the backing of the leaders in the 11 counties that make up the district, but she angered right-wingers by supporting abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
The race morphed from state politics to ideology. Sensing defeat, moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava withdrew and threw her support to the Democrat.
The vote there gave one answer to Republicans who say that the road to resurgence for their party lies on the right fringe rather than down the middle.
Upper New York may not be representative of the country. But Owens’ victory there — the first ever by a Democrat of this era — is only one among many indicators that the far right does not speak for a majority of Americans.
Republicans who can read the political tea leaves should do what they can to take their party back from the radical right and move it to the commonsense center, where the people are, before the 2010 primaries saddle them with ideological purists who would rather be Right than elected.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.