GOP Gains Could Hurt Obama Political Capital, If Not Agenda

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WASHINGTON -- Republican gubernatorial wins in New Jersey and Virginia mark a troubling turn for President Obama, whose personal efforts couldn't stop the fall of Democrats facing a voter backlash over the economy and a notable uptick in the government's would-be role in people's lives.

Obama's 2008 victory in Old Dominion had marked an historic breakthrough for Democrats who hadn't won Virginia's electoral votes since 1964. The fight in the Garden State was more grueling than usually accompanies Democratic campaigns in the reliably blue state of New Jersey.

So the setbacks demonstrate the difficulty of presidential leadership following a campaign built on promises of unity followed by divisive policies and a relentless campaign approach toward big legislative issues like the stimulus and health care bills.

"What this is tonight, this victory here tonight, is a warning shot, and it says to the moderate Democrats in the House that they ought to think twice about continuing to pursue the policies of this White House and (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi," said Virginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor.

In Virginia, Republican Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell roundly defeated Democrat R. Creigh Deeds while GOP Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling won a second term and Republican Ken Cuccinelli was elected attorney general. It was the first time the GOP took the top three spots since 1997.

"We have really had a run of wins and we got used to winning and that makes it tough," said outgoing Virginia Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, who is also chairman of the Democratic National Committee.  "We have to give credit where credit is due they ran a great campaign."

"You guys are making this tougher than this has to be," a resigned Deeds told the still chanting audience at his "victory party."

In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie pulled off a stunning upset over incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine, who was facing a backlash over property taxes and other economic issues. Independent Chris Daggett also pulled about 6 percent of the vote.

In New York's 23rd Congressional District, an unexpected turn of events put Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in direct competition with Democrat Bill Owens for the seat held by former Republican congressman and current Obama Army Secretary John McHugh. Owens was winning the vote tally but Hoffman's upstart showing demonstrated that voter anger is not resigned to one party or another.

As if hoping to avoid the outcome, the White House issued a statement after the GOP win in Virginia saying the president was not watching election returns and would not be making any remarks on the results.

Nonetheless, the outcomes were sure to feed discussion about the state of the electorate, the status of the diverse coalition that sent Obama to the White House and the limits of the president's influence -- on the party's base of support and on moderate current lawmakers he needs to advance his legislative priorities.

"I think what this night does is it completely explodes the mythology of the meaning of the 2008 election," said syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer.

"You will remember after the 2008 election people talked ... about a new era, about the Republicans becoming a rump party of the south, even losing parts of the south, how this was the death of conservatism. ... Here we are a year later and we can see how ephemeral and one-shot 2008 was," he added.

The president had personally campaigned for Deeds and Corzine, raising the stakes in low-energy off-year elections. Thus, even one Democratic loss, much less two, was a blot on Obama's political standing to a certain degree and signaled potential problems ahead as he seeks to achieve his policy goals, protect Democratic majorities in Congress and expand his party's grip on governors' seats next fall.

However, Tuesday's impact on Obama's standing and on the 2010 elections could easily be overstated and over-analyzed.

Only two of the 50 U.S. states were holding gubernatorial elections. Voters often were focused on local issues and local personalities. Indeed, most people in Virginia and New Jersey said they were not casting ballots because of their feelings about Obama.

Yet national issues, such as the recession were a factor, with voter attitudes shaped to some degree by how people felt about the state of their nation.

It also was difficult to separate Obama from the outcomes after he devoted much time working to persuade voters to elect Deeds and re-elect Corzine. Obama campaigned in person for both and was featured in their advertisements. He characterized the two as necessary allies in the White House's effort to advance his plans.

He also deployed his political campaign arm, Organizing for America, to try to ensure the swarms of party loyalists and new voters he attracted in 2008 would turn out.

But according to exit polls, among voters who made up their minds in the last few days, a majority of them broke for Corzine. That suggests Obama's aggressive campaigning paid off in the state.

Exit polls showed that nearly a third of voters in Virginia Tuesday described themselves as independents, and they preferred the Republican to the Democrat by almost a 2-1 margin.

The outcome showed that "the Obama movement, the coalition, isn't transferable," said Democratic strategist Kirsten Powers, a Fox News contributor. "There was a decline in minority voters, a decline in young voters. You weren't seeing these people who turned out in huge force for Obama turning out for other Democrats. And so they're now going to have to step back and say, 'Wait a minute, I'm going to have to take care of myself.'"

But the Democratic losses in Virginia and New Jersey could also be a blot on Obama's political standing to some degree.

Obama needs all the lawmakers he can get to pass his legislative priorities of health care and climate change. Defeats Tuesday could make it harder for him to persuade moderate Democrats from conservative areas to get on board. They have been hearing from voters worried about his expansion of government at a time of rising deficits.

As if on cue, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid also indicated Tuesday that Congress may not complete health care legislation this year, missing Obama's deadline on his signature issue and pushing debate into a congressional election year.

The vote is "more about the policies of the president more than the personalities," said Washington Times columnist Tony Blankely. "The public is getting really scared of his policies and I think that's what we're seeing in all of these elections. ... Obama has moved the policy so far to the left that now you're seeing this big movement back and I think we're only seeing the beginning of it."

Defeats could point to future problems for Democrats, particularly in moderate districts and in swing states like Ohio, Colorado and Nevada. In 2010, most governors, a third of the Senate and all members of the House of Representatives will be on ballots.

Still, Democrats suggest the Tuesday night wins are anything but helpful to the Republican Party.

"They're in a civil war over the definition of their party," said Paul Blank, a Democratic consultant. "And the extremists have won."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.