Pols Debate Meaning of Tuesday

Posted November 7, 2007 at 6:40pm

Tuesday’s off-year elections offered an a la carte menu for Republicans and Democrats looking for reasons to claim that the wind is securely at their backs as the one-year countdown begins to Election Day 2008.

Democrats are filling up on a new state Senate majority in Virginia, their state Senate gains in southern New Jersey and the thrashing of Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) in Kentucky.

Republicans, meanwhile, are taking an extra helping of their near-sweep in Mississippi’s statewide elections, the underperformance of a key Democratic Congressional recruit in New Jersey and various local gains, highlighted by the upset of the two-term Democratic mayor of Indianapolis. The latter development could have implications for the re-election prospects of Rep. Julia Carson (D-Ind.), should she choose to seek a seventh term.

But the debate over which tea leaves are the right ones to read likely will go on for another 364 days.

“In 2005, the Democrat Congressional leadership claimed that the off-year fall elections were pivotal in gaining momentum heading into the following year’s Congressional elections,” wrote Republican National Committee Director of Strategy Bill Steiner in a post-election memo. “If [Sen.] Chuck Schumer [D-N.Y.] and [Rep.] Rahm Emanuel [D-Ill.] were correct in 2005, then the results of this fall bode well for Republicans heading into 2008.”

Democrats were looking to places like southern New Jersey, which suddenly appears a lot bluer after Assemblymen Jeff Van Drew (D) and Jim Whelan (D) knocked off Republican state Senators.

Considered two of the most competitive legislative elections in the state, the two victories, when taken together, give Democrats renewed optimism about possibly taking down Rep. Frank LoBiondo, whose 2nd Congressional district includes much of the territory that Van Drew and Whelan won on Tuesday. It’s a district that Democratic officials find attractive after President Bush won it by fewer than 2,500 votes in 2004. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee officials would love to woo Van Drew into the race.

“This election is a big problem for Frank LoBiondo, who invested a tremendous amount of resources in making sure [the Republican Senators] would win,” said Julie Roginsky, a Democratic political consultant in the Garden State. “This means I think that not only his political prestige, but also his political future is questionable.”

But LoBiondo said the Republican state Senate losses within his district had little to do with Congressional politics.

“Last night’s losses in South Jersey prove that millions and millions of dollars from interests associated with Camden County continue to move our elections away from local issues,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

Tom Wilson, chairman of the New Jersey Republican State Committee said that if Democrats really want to interpret the results of the state’s legislative election for next year’s Congressional race, they shouldn’t forget about the unimpressive re-election victory of state Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D).

After almost beating him in 2006, Stender is again challenging Rep. Mike Ferguson (R). But on Tuesday, Stender was able to win re-election by only about 3,000 votes, an especially close margin considering her Republican challenger spent next to nothing on his long-shot bid.

“Linda Stender should spend the next year concentrating on the job she has barely kept rather than launching what will be another failed Congressional campaign,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Jessica Boulanger said. “Last year, the voters said no thanks to her Congressional aspirations, and now they are clearly questioning her performance on the state level.”

Farther south in Virginia, Democrats spent Wednesday celebrating their four-seat gain in the state Senate. Two key pickups in the Hampton Roads area as well as two more hard-fought victories in Northern Virginia gave the party control of the state Senate for the first time in a dozen years. Combined with a net gain of three seats in the House of Delegates, Democratic officials are now claiming that a once solidly Republican state is now a battleground where Democrats continue to rack up victories.

“In Virginia, a state once considered a Republican stronghold, Republicans are seeing a swift erosion of support and Democrats continue to win races and are increasingly viewed as the party of competency and change,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Doug Thornell on Wednesday.

But Republican pollster Glen Bolger said he was surprised at “how little the Democrats were able to capitalize on the political environment. Democrats were predicting a sweep, they were predicting they’d win all six state Senate races. They predicted they were going to pick up six to 10 seats in the House of Delegates … But that’s just not the case. It was nowhere near the slam dunk they were expecting.”

Rep. Tom Davis (R), whose wife was defeated Tuesday in her state Senate re-election bid, has not yet said whether he plans to seek re-election, and said that the tendency is to read too much into the off-year election results.

“A year is an eternity,” he said. “We’ve been through these cycles.”

While conceding that “Republicans have to retool” in order to stem continued losses in suburban areas, Davis said the presidential campaign gives the GOP a chance to present a new image to voters.

“We’ll have a new face on our party,” he said.

But looking to 2008, Democrats are talking about turning several Virginia House districts into battlegrounds and are convinced that former Gov. Mark Warner (D) will win the state’s open Senate seat. With the large cash-on-hand advantage that the Democratic campaign committees have over their Republican counterparts, GOP Reps. Thelma Drake, Frank Wolf and Davis could all find themselves being seriously targeted in 2008.

“Virginia is a state that Republicans can’t afford to spend money in,” Thornell said. “If they have to spend resources protecting Tom Davis, Thelma Drake and Frank Wolf, that is taking key resources away from districts where they could be on the offense.”

In Kentucky, Democrats are hoping to ride the momentum of their landslide victory in the gubernatorial race to target Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) next year.

“Mitch McConnell threw his personal reputation and his supposedly invincible political organization behind Ernie Fletcher, and Kentucky voters overwhelmingly rejected him today,” DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller said Wednesday. “Kentuckians showed they are fed up with the McConnell-Fletcher status quo and everything it stands for in Washington and in Frankfort.”

The liberal group Americans United for Change, which already has run a barrage of ads this year attacking McConnell, announced Wednesday that it would begin a new round of statewide ads hitting McConnell for President Bush’s decision to veto the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.