Dems find hope in Republican chaos

Democrats took it on the chin in this year's off-off-year gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. Since those are two states that President Obama won last year, vulnerable Democratic lawmakers in next year's elections are feeling as nervo...

Democrats took it on the chin in this year's off-off-year gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. Since those are two states that President Obama won last year, vulnerable Democratic lawmakers in next year's elections are feeling as nervous as Glenn Beck at an ACORN convention.

But the Dems can find a silver lining in the high-profile Democratic victory in a traditionally Republican upstate New York district. The lesson in that contest: National Republican leaders are taking the title for infighting away from the traditionally fractious national Democrats.

That's one important lesson to be come out of this year's contests. Here are two more:

1. The magical Obamamania that energized young voters, in particular, last year was historic but not easily loaned out to other Democrats.

2. Colorful extremists fire up a party's base and raise a lot of money, but moderate swing voters tend to decide who wins.


Obama's coattails were too short to give New Jersey Gov. John Corzine anything to grab onto as he struggled in vain to keep his seat. Exit polls show voters were fed up with high taxes and corruption scandals. Repeated campaign visits by President Obama, Mr. Change himself, could not save a governor who had come to represent a despised status quo.

Nevertheless, the even bigger loss suffered by Virginia's Creigh Deeds showed that it is better for a Democrat to have Obama by your side than out of sight. After failing to get anywhere by distancing himself from Obama, Deeds was delighted to have Obama campaign with him. But Deeds learned too late what Al Gore learned by spurning the help of Bill Clinton in 2000: Don't distance yourself from people whom your voting base still adores.

The possibility that the 2009 contests are a preview of bigger Democratic losses in next year's midterm elections puts a chill up the spine of vulnerable Democrats at a bad time. Party leaders need all the spine they can muster to pass a strong health care overhaul bill this year. With Deeds' demise in mind, Democrats would do well to remember what the late Texas-based columnist Molly Ivins used to say, "Dance with the one that brung you." The Democratic base expects to see a meaningful health care overhaul and they'll be even more turned off next year if they don't get it.

With that in mind, Democrats can find some hope in Republican disarray, as evidenced by Democrat Bill Owens victory in New York's 23d district. Party leaders anointed State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava to fill Rep. John McHugh's seat after he was appointed secretary of the Army. But she wasn't conservative enough for purists like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Kristol, Sean Hannity and the Club for Growth. They backed Doug Hoffman, a self-described fan of anti-tax tea party protests and Fox News' excitable Beck.

When Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a 2012 GOP presidential hopeful, endorsed Hoffman, the race became a test of clout for the talk-show-driven, populist-conservative movement born out of this year's anti-tax, anti-Obama "Tea Party" movement and town hall protests.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich warned against dividing the party and handing Speaker Nancy Pelosi another Democratic vote in the House. He was jeered by the Palin populists for that, but Newt turned out to be right. I don't know if Obama had such a fight in mind when he appointed McHugh, but if I were him I would claim I did. Thanks to the tea party populists, the move bore sweeter fruit than Democrats had any right to expect.

Undaunted, Palin declared on her Facebook page, "The race for New York's 23rd District is not over, just postponed until 2010." Of course, in the meantime, a Democrat will be filling the seat and casting the votes. But the Palin populists seem to care less about winning campaigns at this point than winning arguments.

A better model for Republican success is provided by Virginia's governor-elect Bob McDonnell. He beat Deeds by moving to the center, soft-pedaling his background as a Pat Robertson-affiliated social conservative and addressing practical issues like taxes and transportation. McDonnell didn't have to reassure his conservative base, since Deeds' negative ads ironically did that job for him.


As a result, attacks from his left freed McDonnell to run as an Obama-style centrist, not a Palin-style barnstormer. That's a lesson for charisma-challenged Republican leaders as they try to get back into power in Washington. The GOP's angry tea-party conservatives can raise money and whip up excitement in the discontented Republican base. But when big problems like jobs and the economy are at stake, voters care less about who's right or who's left than with what's going to work.

(E-mail Clarence Page at , or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.)



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