It wasn't the anniversary night Barack Obama likely envisioned a year ago, when anti-Bush sentiment and an economic crisis helped propel him to a historic presidential victory.
But former President Bush has disappeared into retirement, the economy continues to struggle and Tuesday night, Democrats Creigh Deeds in Virginia and Jon Corzine in New Jersey — two states the charismatic president carried with ease in 2008 — lost their governor's races.
Independent voters, key to Obama's victory, broke for Republicans Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey in big numbers. And Obama's personal get-out-the-vote magic — bestowed on Deeds and Corzine in joint appearances in the days before Tuesday's election — failed this time to motivate black and young voters in sufficient numbers to secure wins.
Democrats were not shut out completely Tuesday. In a closely watched New York congressional race, Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, despite high-profile support from the likes of Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty, came up short in a district that has been represented by a Republican for a century, losing to Democrat Bill Owens.
But Democrats played down Tuesday's losses as something far less than a referendum on the new president and his ambitious agenda.
Virginia, they argued, has since 1973 elected a governor not of the president's party. Exit polls showed that New Jersey residents were motivated more by local issues of high property taxes and political corruption than by national concerns. Deeds was a poor candidate, and Corzine's links to Wall Street — he's a former Goldman Sachs chief — hurt.
And, no matter what conservatives say, the off-year elections of 2009 are not the midterms of 2010, which a year from now will certainly serve as a powerful commentary on the Obama agenda.
A Report On The Democratic Agenda?
But governorship losses in New Jersey and Virginia, coupled with an emerging arch-conservative "revolution" in an upstate New York congressional district where a moderate Republican was pressured to drop out, have implications.
They provide an early warning about the mood of the electorate a year after Obama won the White House, as the federal deficit soars and joblessness ticks up despite Wall Street gains.
And the results have the potential to spook some moderate Democrats into pushing back on Obama's more expensive initiatives, and to embolden already recalcitrant conservatives looking for a toehold going into an election year.
"The context for this election changed dramatically over the past 12 months," says Bob Holsworth, who runs the nonpartisan Web site Virginia Tomorrow. "The results are, in some ways, a report on the national agenda of the Democratic Party — not simply a report on Obama himself."
'Obama Magic' Vs. Local Factors
The New Jersey result was more surprising: Obama campaigned three times for Corzine, and polls had shown him in a neck-and-neck race with Christie, with a third-party candidate siphoning votes from both. Yet it's the Virginia result, a foregone conclusion for weeks, that may ultimately be more telling.
Exit polls in Virginia showed that voters were more concerned about the economy, jobs and health care — all national issues. And the state in recent years had been showing a definite Democratic trend.
Democrats had won two gubernatorial elections in a row, Obama became the first Democrat to win the state in 44 years, and there was a sense that a political and demographic reassessment was occurring in the state.
"People were asking whether Virginia was still a Southern state, or was it a mid-Atlantic state instead, a red state turning blue?" says Paul Freedman, a politics professor at the University of Virginia.
But Deeds failed to make a good case for himself, Freedman says, and McDonnell ran a skilled campaign that kept the focus on the economy — and away from some of the more controversial culturally conservative positions he had embraced in the past.
In New Jersey, Corzine, despite Obama's help, failed to get out enough voters in urban areas to counteract Christie's power in the suburbs.
"He's an unpopular governor and has been governing during a very difficult time," says Alan Steinberg, a Republican commentator in New Jersey. "From what I'm hearing, turnout is not what they hoped — the Obama magic may not have worked."
"That doesn't mean that people feel negatively about Obama," Steinberg says. "It's just his magic isn't so strong that it can overcome local factors."
In New Jersey, 60 percent of those casting ballots said Obama was not a factor in their vote; 55 percent in Virginia said the same.
But, says Democratic strategist Michael Murphy, a Corzine adviser: "A national recession has got a lot of people grumpy."
That anxiety — or grumpiness — is real. And if the economy remains a problem into the first quarter of next year, conservatives will no doubt be looking at the McDonnell model in Virginia in 2010 and beyond.
The model? "You don't have to become a moderate to win — you just have to pick the right issues," says Holsworth, of Virginia Tomorrow. "That's the challenge for the Republican Party — can they do nationally what they did in Virginia?"
For a party with a dearth of leaders and a badly damaged brand, that question remains open. But Tuesday's wins will no doubt breathe life into the discussion.
Analysis from Watching Washington::
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