Voters’ memo to politicians: We’re angry and fearful, mostly about jobs and the economy. We want tangible solutions, not partisan bickering or intraparty spats. And we’ll vote either party out of office if we don’t think you’re listening.
That’s the latest warning to thousands of candidates who will seek offices low and high in all 50 states next year, when the number of elections will far exceed those held Tuesday.
This week’s message came from New Jersey, Virginia and upstate New York, where restless voters rewarded candidates who focused on jobs and competent-but-restrained government and punished those steeped in drama or making uninspired arguments to continue a string of Democratic governors.
Republicans clearly had the better day. They picked up the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey, even though President Barack Obama had campaigned for both Democratic nominees.
The results underscored Obama’s limited ability to excite liberals when he’s not on the ballot. That message is unwelcome by the roughly 250 House Democrats and 16 Senate Democrats expected to seek re-election next year, when Obama will be halfway through his four-year term.
Many of those Democrats have safe seats. But a few of the senators, and at least three dozen House members, could face stiff GOP challenges. Over the next year, they often will have to decide how closely to align themselves with the White House, and when to show independence from their party’s leaders.
Their choices could affect major legislation, including the bid to overhaul the nation’s health care system.
Numerous Democrats, and even a few Republicans, said Wednesday they doubted this week’s elections would seriously threaten the health care push. But some warned that Obama and his allies will have to work harder to muster a majority of votes in the House and a filibuster-proof super majority in the Senate.
“For people who have been undecided, it either keeps them undecided or moves them to ‘no,'” said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D. With so many independent voters backing the GOP nominees in New Jersey and Virginia on Tuesday, she said, “we have to step back and say, ‘What can we do to regain their support?'”
But Republicans suffered their own setback this week. In a House district that Republicans have controlled for more than a century in upstate New York, Democrat Bill Owens won a special election after GOP and conservative activists turned on each other. Staunch conservatives forced the GOP nominee from the race and ran a third-party candidate, who lost to Owens.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said incumbents of every stripe had better take notice. Americans will vote for change if they feel their representatives aren’t working to create jobs, improve the economy and run the government efficiently, he said.
Tuesday’s elections were a “referendum on the economy,” not on Obama or the health care debate, Nelson said. As for Obama, he said, the “president’s popularity is greater than any of his plans.”
Veteran Democrats disagreed about how alarmed they should be by Tuesday’s results.
Some, like Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., laughed them off. She will be happy to keep picking up long-held GOP House seats, she said, although she agreed that Democrats must convince voters they can pull the economy out of its slump.
“I don’t think you can use the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races as predictors of what will likely happen next November,” Wasserman Schultz said. Voters “are very concerned about the economy,” she said, but the two gubernatorial races were determined by “what was going on in those individual states.”
Other Democrats are more worried.
Former Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch, who lost the 2006 governor’s race to Republican Tim Pawlenty, said he senses growing public frustration with his party’s efforts to improve the economy.
“I’m afraid that the Democrats may read this election of ’09 wrong,” Hatch said. “This is about a Washington government that has got to pay a little more attention, a little more concern with the average person.”
Several prominent Democrats said Tuesday’s elections will hardly influence the health care debates in Congress.
“I think the health care legislation has its own life, its own set of issues,” said Don Fowler of South Carolina, a former national party chairman. If the Democratic-controlled Congress approves a hefty version of the health care proposals, he said, most Americans will see the party as trying to help the average person.
The biggest danger for Democrats is to be too cautious and conservative in crafting major legislation such as health care, said Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Craig Hosmer.
“You try to be bipartisan, but if you can’t, you’ve got to get something done,” he said. Democrats “need to act like a majority.”
Terry Holt, a Washington-based Republican campaign consultant, said the New Jersey and Virginia elections are bound to worry some House Democrats facing tough races next year.
“There’s a lot of deer-in-the-headlights looks on Capitol Hill today,” he said, even if some lawmakers inevitably read too much into off-year elections.
“Now the fight for the 2010 election begins,” Holt said, “and it’s going to be pretty even.”
Contributing to this report were Seanna Adcox in Columbia, S.C.; Mike Baker in Raleigh, N.C.; Ben Evans and Andrew Miga in Washington; Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Fla.; Glen Johnson in Boston; David Lieb in Jefferson City, Mo.; Martiga Lohn in St. Paul, Minn.; Geoff Mulvihill in Mount Laurel, N.J.; Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss.; Sophia Tareen in Chicago; and Christopher Wills in Springfield, Ill.