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GOP Touts Different Sort of ‘Change’ in Va., N.J. Wins

November 4, 2009 at 6:03 PM EDT
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Judy Woodruff speaks with Amy Walter, editor of The Hotline, and Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Report, about the political implications of Tuesday's gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

JIM LEHRER: Republicans celebrated today over Election Day victories in major races, while White House officials and Democrats in general played down the results.

Gwen Ifill has our lead story report.

GWEN IFILL: One year after the voters of New Jersey and Virginia helped elect Barack Obama president, they reversed course last night, handing their states’ top jobs to Republicans.

National GOP Chairman Michael Steele said today his party has found its voice again.

MICHAEL STEELE, chairman, Republican National Committee: The Republican renaissance has begun. It has begun in earnest, in which we put our faith in the hopes and dreams of the American people to rebuild our economy from the bottom up, not the big deficit-spending plans and policies of the politicians in Washington or our state capitals.

GWEN IFILL: Virginia Republicans, including former Attorney General Bob McDonnell, swept the night, McDonnell by a nearly 20-point margin over Democratic state Senator Creigh Deeds.

BOB MCDONNELL, R-Va.: Eight months ago, I applied for the job of governor of Virginia. Tonight, you have hired me. Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama campaigned repeatedly for both Deeds in Virginia and New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, but it wasn’t enough to sway independent voters, especially in Virginia.

Still, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the results reflected local concerns, and should not be considered a referendum on the Obama presidency.

A similar warning came from Democrat Tim Kaine, the outgoing Virginia governor and national party chairman.

GOV. TIM KAINE, D-Va., Democratic national committee chairman: We have got both U.S. senators. We put electoral votes behind President Obama. And we now control a majority in our House delegation. And we’re going to win a lot more races in years to come.

GWEN IFILL: In New Jersey, Republican U.S. Attorney Chris Christie beat Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine in a contest that was dominated by worries over the state’s dismal economy.

CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: The suffocating taxes and a government that was out of control has rendered Trenton completely out of touch. Tomorrow, starting tomorrow, we are going to pick Trenton up, and we are going to turn it upside-down.

GWEN IFILL: Corzine outspent his Republican foe by $12 million dollars in his bid for a second term.

GOV. JON CORZINE, D-N.J.: There is a bright future ahead for New Jersey if we stay focused on the things that matter in people’s lives. And I guarantee you, I’m going to do that for the rest of my life, working with all of you for the things that matter.

Democrats celebrate in N.Y.

GWEN IFILL: Democrats enjoyed one bright spot yesterday, winning a hotly contested congressional special election in Upstate New York, as Bill Owens defeated conservative party candidate Doug Hoffman.

The race attracted national attention when conservative Republicans, like Sarah Palin, endorsed Hoffman over party pick Dede Scozzafava. She dropped out of the race and endorsed the Democrat.

A trio of big cities also held close elections yesterday. In New York, independent Michael Bloomberg scored a third term, but only after breaking all records for a personally financed campaign, spending nearly $100 million. He beat City Comptroller Bill Thompson by only six points, instead of the double digits predicted in pre-election polling.

But he said today, a win is a win.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, mayor, New York: I don't think the margin of victory was narrow. When the Yankees win, whether they win in four, five, six, or seven, it's number 27. That's all that matters, OK?


BLOOMBERG: And I'm just honored that not the plurality, which is all you needed, but a majority of the people in this city said, keep up the hard work.

GWEN IFILL: In Atlanta, two candidates will face a runoff next month. Councilwoman Mary Norwood garnered the most votes, but neither she nor runner-up Kasim Reed, a state senator, received more than 50 percent. If elected, Norwood would be the city's first white mayor in more than 30 years.

There will be another mayoral runoff in Houston...

CROWD: Go, Gene, go!

GWEN IFILL: ... this one between former City Attorney Gene Locke and City Controller Annise Parker. Parker would be that city's first openly-gay mayor.

And in another closely-watched contest, Maine voters repealed a six-month old law legalizing same-sex marriage. The debate roiled the state.

MAN: Everybody should be able to get married, if they want to. I have a lot of friends, you know, who are gay. And I'm happy to be able to vote for them to be able to get married.

MAN: The only question that really bothered me was the very first one. And, you know, I just think that we need to vote according to what we believe in.

GWEN IFILL: Gay marriage initiatives have now been rejected in all 31 states where it's been put to a popular vote.

JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff takes it from here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now putting these election results into some context, we get that from Amy Walter, editor in chief of The Hotline, National Journal's political daily, and Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report.

Thank you, both, for being here.

Stu, start with you. Pulling it all together, what was the main thing motivating voters yesterday?

Economy, government drove election

Stuart Rothenberg
The Rothenberg Political Report
For two cycles, we have heard Democrats talking about change. And now Republicans took advantage of that.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, the polls tell us it was the economy, and often jobs, that people were concerned with that. They're concerned with the direction of the country, but particularly the economy.

But I think, for many of the voters who turned out, although we don't see it specifically in the polls, many of the conservatives and independents, it was a kind of generalized concern about the country, the role of government, size government, and the overall activities that we have been seeing nationally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, pretty much what everybody has been talking about, Amy?

AMY WALTER, editor, The Hotline: Yes, and it's also a change election. Change elections in -- of course, and 2008 was known as the change election. It's funny how those things can sometimes come and bite you back.

What happened was, you had all those folks in 2008 who turned out voting for change. In 2009, we saw a very different-looking electorate. Fewer Democrats turned out. A lot more self-described conservatives, a lot of Republicans came and turned out, both in New Jersey and in Virginia. Those people have been hungering for change for some time.

They have been sitting in states that have been controlled by Democrats, or Democrats have been doing very well. They wanted to send a message. And they did.

STUART ROTHENBERG: That's really funny. It was the same message, different party.


STUART ROTHENBERG: We have heard -- for two cycles, we have heard Democrats talking about change. And now Republicans took advantage of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do we know why Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents didn't turn out, weren't as excited, especially in these governor's races, Stu?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I mean, in some cases, in the case of Governor Corzine in New Jersey, they just didn't think he performed well. So, Democrats weren't enthusiastic. They stayed home.

And, in Virginia, which should have been, and wasn't, really more of a fair fight, I think it was a combination of things. Certainly, the Republican, Bob McDonnell, ran a terrific campaign. He was a conservative. He had all the credentials to energize and excite conservative voters in Virginia.

But he ran basically a pragmatic campaign, again, about transportation, and jobs, and the economy, and the future, and change. And I think he ran a terrific campaign, the perfect kind of campaign. And Democrats just weren't enthusiastic about Creigh Deeds, for a number -- for a number of reasons.

And the Republicans did a good job of painting him as a -- as a taxer and a spender. And -- and it worked well for him.

Democrats lacked incentives

Amy Walter
The Hotline
In the exit polls, we saw majorities of voters saw both Corzine in New Jersey and Deeds in Virginia running supremely negative campaigns.

AMY WALTER: Well, and it goes to this point, too, about 2008, those so-called Obama surge voters. We learned a lot about younger voters, minority voters, who turned out in big numbers, independents who were really more moderate or liberal leaning.

Those just don't convey, like -- you know, like a refrigerator in your house when you go and sell it. You still have to go out and motivate those same voters. Neither Deeds nor Corzine really gave those voters the incentive that they were looking for.

And when we also think the sort of stereotype of the Obama voter, they were motivated by -- yes, one thing was change, but by an optimism and hope. And in the exit polls, we saw majorities of voters saw both Corzine in New Jersey and Deeds in Virginia running supremely negative campaigns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Amy, pitching it forward -- and you also had the defeat of the conservative candidate in this congressional district in Upstate New York.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What does this say for Republicans going forward, next year's midterm elections?

AMY WALTER: Well, Stu brought the issue of the economy up, and I think that's very clear.

Look, voters have one thing on their mind right now. It's the economy and jobs. In places like New Jersey, property taxes are always a big issue. And if Democrats can't deliver on that -- remember, these were the incumbent parties, Virginia and New Jersey -- then voters are going to, you know, vote against them.

Democrats in the House and Senate, it's their Congress now. It's -- the economy is now theirs. And they have to prove next year to voters that they are worthy of having that leadership.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, I would say two points playing off what Amy just says, exactly.

I think this election demonstrates that the country has turned a page on George W. Bush.


STUART ROTHENBERG: And Republicans can breathe a huge sigh of relief on this one. For the last two cycles, Republican candidates have been on the defensive, Judy. They have been explaining why they're not George W. Bush, how they're different than President Bush, why they're not responsible for -- whether it's Iraq or the economy.

And now they can go on the attack. They can be more aggressive. They can talk about their own stance.

And, just quickly, the second thing is, I think the other thing I would take away is, Republicans, when they get candidates who are personally attractive, appealing, can hold the conservatives, but also reach out to swing voters, it's a very good combination. And, when they can't, they're in big trouble.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what does this say for President Obama's agenda? He has got very important issues before the Congress right now, Amy...


JUDY WOODRUFF: ... health care right now, energy, cap and trade right around the corner. What does this say about his ability to get members of Congress to vote with him?

Democrats facing an uphill battle

Stuart Rothenberg
The Rothenberg Political Report
The narrative out of this election is that times have changed. The president can't carry you to victory. The president can't turn out voters. Democrats are disheartened.

AMY WALTER: Well, I think there are some mixed messages here.

I mean, on the one hand, as we just said, the economy was the number-one issue, and Democrats lost on that issue. So, it's clear that, for Democrats going forward, they need to be able to give some tangible benefits to voters going into this next election on issues like economy and jobs.

The other thing, on health care, a lot of the talk around it, the controversy surrounding it, is sort of -- I think of it as a double-edged sword here for Democrats. On the one hand, they have to prove that they are doing a good job governing, that they -- so, they need to pass something to show...


AMY WALTER: ... we -- we have control of everything; we can actually to put our agenda forward.

On the other hand, a lot of the elements that could be contained in a health care plan include things like taxes and more government oversight, things that voters in these two states rejected. So that I think is something going forward that Democrats are going to be wary of.

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think it's all about the narrative.

And the narrative out of this election is that times have changed. The president can't carry you to victory. The president can't turn out voters. Democrats are disheartened. What is the message then to Democrats representing swing or even Republican-leaning districts? And there are plenty of them.

It's that, I better figure out a way to separate myself from this administration. So, I think it's really, really bad news for the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you say narrative, you mean the narrative...

STUART ROTHENBERG: The story that is being told, right, that we're all taking about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the media and elsewhere, not just by one party or another?


No. Now, the Republicans -- that is part of the Republican narrative. But I think most people who look at these elections -- and, in fact, our discussion here is mostly -- this was a pretty good night for Republicans. And, so, now Democrats have to answer the question when they go on your show and other shows, what happened? They have to kind of justify it, explain, defend.

AMY WALTER: And why you deserve to still be -- why you deserve to still be here and be in the majority?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk about a couple of these specific races.

New York City, Mayor Bloomberg spent, what, over $100 million, Amy, to get reelected.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What does it say about his prospects?

AMY WALTER: Well, a lot of people took from that, including the mayor, that this election was just a backlash against incumbents in general. And unlike -- unlike the other folks that Stu and I talked about, he's personally popular. People like Mayor Bloomberg. They didn't dislike him. But they didn't like what...

STUART ROTHENBERG: They like his performance as mayor.

AMY WALTER: They like his performance. That's a very good way to say that.


AMY WALTER: But what they don't I think particularly like -- and, look, you think about New York, New York voters, New Jersey voters, both the same, sort of don't -- that they can be rubbed the wrong way pretty easily.

And, look, I think they saw $100 million going out to beat up this guy who literally spent $20 per vote, as opposed to Bloomberg, who was spending $180 or something per vote, and thought, this is just a little bit over the top.

I think they just wanted to send a message to say, you know, like the Yankees, they threw -- like a good Yankee pitcher, they wanted to throw one in, a little chin music.

STUART ROTHENBERG: One in four voters that approved of his job performance voted against him.

This was a personal comment. You changed the law, so you could run again? I think New Yorkers think they do want Bloomberg to be mayor. They just don't want him to know that they want him to be mayor.

STUART ROTHENBERG: They want to send a message that, hey, you don't run the whole city. Just calm down a little bit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anything we should say about these other mayor's races, Atlanta, Houston, of particular national...

AMY WALTER: No, I mean, I think a lot of people are going to be looking at both of those races simply because race is going to be a very important issue here in both Houston and in Atlanta. You see they have a white woman running up against an African-American man.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Amy, just quickly, this vote against gay marriage in Maine, what does that say about the movement for gay marriage?

AMY WALTER: Well, look, I think, for proponents of gay marriage, I think it's time for really a retooling here and a retrenching, that there has to be -- you know, they have tried this in all kinds of different states, in all kinds of different ways, all kinds of messaging. It hasn't broken through.

And so, now, instead of trying to sell the issue of marriage, I think they're going to have to come back and figure out, maybe we try to take this apart and sell it in a different way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy Walter, Stu Rothenberg, thank you, both.

JIM LEHRER: On our Web site,, we have links to coverage of the New York and New Jersey races by our PBS colleagues.

Also, you can listen to an interview with a reporter from Maine Public Broadcasting about the same-sex marriage referendum.