Are today's elections a referendum on Obama?

Voters go to the polls Tuesday for several closely watched elections. What will the results mean?

Published November 3, 2009 3:40PM (EST)

It's not an even-numbered year, but it is the first Tuesday in November, and here in the U.S., that means Election Day. Not many races are on the ballot today, and turnout is bound to be low for almost all of them, but there are a few that will have a real impact on local politics -- perhaps even nationally as well. Certainly, the results will be analyzed to death as pundits ponder the question of what they mean about President Obama.

We'll have coverage here in War Room tonight, of course, but first, here's a little preview of the day's big races, and what you should know about whether this really will be a referendum on the president.

The races everyone will be watching:

  • New Jersey gubernatorial: Incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, takes on challenger Chris Christie, the former U.S. attorney. Independent Chris Daggett, who's basically a moderate Republican, may end up playing spoiler -- Corzine needs Daggett to take a chunk out of Christie's hide to have any chance of victory.
  • Virginia gubernatorial: Incumbent Gov. Tim Kaine, also the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, can't run again -- Virginia limits its governors to a single term. Democrat Creigh Deeds is trying to hold the seat for his party, but Republican Robert McDonnell has jumped out to a double-digit lead in the polls. If Deeds, by some miracle, manages to win, it'd be the biggest upset since Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson.
  • Special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District: Voters are electing a replacement for Republican John McHugh, whom Obama made secretary of the Army. The district's been in GOP hands since the time when upstate New York also hosted the Garden of Eden, but there's no Republican candidate in the race anymore. Dede Scozzafava, who faced concerted opposition from conservative activists -- and eventually, the conservative establishment -- dropped out over the weekend, and later endorsed Democrat Bill Owens. Third-party candidate Doug Hoffman is the conservative favorite, and now essentially the Republican as well; polls show him in the lead.
  • Maine referendum on same-sex marriage: The state's Legislature, with the blessing of the governor, legalized same-sex weddings earlier this year. Now voters get a chance to uphold that decision -- or repeal it. The race is too close to call; turnout will likely be the deciding factor.
  • New York City mayoral: Incumbent Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a former Republican who became an independent, has enough clout and enough money -- mostly money -- that he was able to get the City Council to change a law that limited him to two terms. Now he's running again, against Democrat Bill Thompson. Bloomberg's the favorite in the polls and of the establishment; Thompson could barely even force a grudging endorsement from Obama. If Thompson, by some miracle, manages to win, it'd be the biggest upset since Evander Holyfield beat Mike Tyson.

There are a bunch of other elections out there. That includes another special congressional election, this one in California, which the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, is expected to walk away with. There are also mayoral races in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Houston and Miami, among others.

But the races listed above are the ones that will capture the attention of political observers around the country. And there will be, inevitably, many postmortems tonight and tomorrow about the results, and many pundits will be ready to tell you how each election reflected on Obama.

The general consensus on the right is that McDonnell's expected victory in Virginia, as well as the possible win by Christie in New Jersey -- or even a very close race there -- show that voters aren't happy about Obama's performance or Democratic plans for healthcare reform, and that the Republican Party is ready to make a comeback. Conservatives are also slamming the mainstream media already, saying the press is deliberately downplaying the Obama effect on the election to protect him and that the races really will reflect opinion about the president rather than just local issues and the candidates directly at issue.

For the most part, though, that's not true: In New Jersey and Virginia, at least, it's about the candidates.

In Virginia, for instance, Deeds has become a laughingstock, with even political reporters openly mocking his ineptitude. Moreover, though Obama did manage a victory in Virginia last year, he did so at a time when turnout was high -- even higher than normal, in fact, because of his presence on the ticket. Now it's an off-year, which meant a big leg up for the Republicans from the beginning. And, to add a little objective data to the mix, in a recent poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News, 70 percent of respondents said their feelings about the president don't affect their vote in this election. Fifteen percent did say their vote was about expressing opposition to Obama, but 14 percent said they'd be voting Deeds to show their support for Obama.

In New Jersey, Corzine's been unpopular for some time, and it's only because of Republican Christie's own troubles and the gift of an independent who's polling at 10 percent that the incumbent is still in the race. Don't let the Democratic spin fool you, either -- if Corzine wins, various surrogates will rush to give Obama the credit. He doesn't deserve it. Christie's own troubles will be the cause of his downfall, if it does happen. (Full disclosure: Democrats are also sending around early spin playing down the idea that Obama is at issue in the races in both Jersey and Virginia. In this case, that spin has the added virtue of being accurate.)

That doesn't mean the idea that Obama plays at least some role should be dismissed out of hand. Perhaps the biggest thing to consider is how energized the president has made the Republican base. That's very important when it comes to close elections, and the effect is likely to persist through the midterms in 2010, when the president won't be on the ticket to motivate his own supporters.

The most interesting thing to watch tonight, then, the one race that really could have serious national implications, is the congressional election in upstate New York. It's far too early to say what kind of impact the various possible outcomes could have, but there are some possibilities to consider: Will a Hoffman victory turn the GOP further to the right, and give activists the muscle to push out any moderate candidates next year? On the other side of the coin, would a Hoffman loss marginalize those same activists? If Hoffman wins and the base becomes even more powerful in the Republican Party, is that necessarily a bad thing? Those are the questions that could affect American politics for years to come.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Alex Koppelman

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2009 Elections Chris Christie Doug Hoffman New Jersey New York Virginia War Room