Perhaps it’s my imagination, but there seems to be a lot of media discussion of how the results today in two governor’s races and one rather bizarre House race serve somehow as a referendum on Barack Obama, the Democrats, their majority, the Democratic agenda and platform, the bank bailout, the stimulus package, “HOPE,” your haircut, my haircut, the undefeated New Orleans Saints, and just about anything else that can be piled on.
OK, OK, I’m exaggerating for effect. But if the 2009 cycle is a referendum on either party, isn’t more of a referendum on the Republicans? Or perhaps, more precisely, a referendum for Republicans about the meaning of Republicanism?
Yes, elections are typically–and rightly–a referendum on the policy performance of the in-power majority party. But during an election cycle, and particularly in the primaries leading up to the general, it is the out party that is working out its issues and kinks, trying on its new or reconfigured identity. This was certainly the storyline when liberal Democrats were backing people like Ned Lamont back in 2006.
That said, consider that the GOP nominees in the three highest-profile races today–Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, New Jersey’s Chris Christie and New York 23′s Dede Scozzafava–represent three variations on the question of what ails the GOP and how to fix it. Moving from center-right to right, lets’ take a look at each model:
No matter what, because of the Hoffman-Scozzfava dustup, Republicans will not win all three of these races. And if Christie loses, the GOP will go 1 for 3. That may be the most telling lesson of all in terms of how the party needs to re-build. Whatever the results tonight, it seems to me that 2009 is the year of the Republicans almost by definition because these contests represent a broader, intramural contest to define GOP’s future strategy and identity.
I’m not saying the the Democratic nominees, the way they ran their campaigns, or state and national issues are or were meaningless. They’re not, of course. And I’m not saying voters in these elections have no opinions about the president, or are not voicing those opinions through their votes. But 2009 is about the GOP.