In yesterday's Wall Street Journal Karl Rove presented a thoughtful opinion piece on how to read the results of elections to be held Tuesday in Virginia, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Regardless of Rove's projected outcomes in these elections, he makes the mistake of seeing the results, as most of Washington will see them, through the lens of partisanship, and he measures the outcome, only as Washington has come to measure all outcomes, in terms of partisan advantage.
According to Rove:
Voters have lived under Democratic rule for nine months, and many of them, especially independents, don't like what they are seeing. Tuesday's election will provide the most tangible evidence of how strong a backlash is building - and just how frightened centrist Democrats should be of 2010. For Republicans, it looks as if hope and change are on the way.
I have a different view of what Tuesday's results may tell us and not because I am a Democrat.
To Rove "us" is the Republican party and "them" is the Democratic party. This isn't just Rove's problem - most in both party establishments view the political world this way - with just as many seeing "us" as Democrats and "them" as Republicans. But this view masks what is truly happening - and makes the establishments of both parties blind to what is coming in 2010.
Voters are increasingly seeing themselves as "us" and both parties in Washington as "them." They are not going to discriminate between the two parties in 2010. The results next Tuesday will likely demonstrate the voter's frustration with those in power, regardless of party. Far from signaling a backlash against Democratic rule and hope for the Republican Party, the results on Tuesday will signal that in 2010 incumbents in both parties, of all ideological stripes should be frightened.
Take off your partisan glasses on Tuesday night and this is what you will see.
In Virginia, where Democrats have held the Governor's office for 8 years, I agree with Rove that Republican Bob McDonnell is likely to win. Republicans will see this as a sign of resurgence. That would be a mistake. Question: If George Bush were still President does anyone think Bob McDonnell would have any chance in Virginia today? The reality is that something else is at work here. And the results in New Jersey and New York will expose exactly what it is.
Virginia's race for governor does not include a viable third candidate outside of the two major parties. The races for governor of New Jersey and for Congress in New York's 23rd district do have independent or third party candidates who are shaping the outcomes.
In New Jersey, Rove is correct in pointing out that, incumbent Democratic Governor Jon Corzine has been at 42% or above in just 6 out of 59 polls in the race conducted since January. And Rove is correct in pointing out that this condition is usually terminal for an incumbent. But it would be incredibly blind to see a GOP win in New Jersey as a sign of renewal and strength for the Republican Party. Even with an incumbent governor who cannot rate much higher than 42% of the vote, the Republican nominee Chris Christie can't seem to poll much higher and, as of today, the race is a dead heat because independent candidate Chris Daggett is pulling votes away from both major party candidates. And, as Rove points out, the Republican Governor's Association's only attack that has worked against Daggett is that if you vote for him you might get Corzine. In typical two party mind sync it won't be long before Democrats start arguing to the same people that if you vote for Daggett you might get Christie.
If Corzine wins on Tuesday, it would be a mistake for Democrats to breathe a sigh of relief and view it as a sign of voters returning to the party fold - and, if Christie wins, the GOP would make a mistake to read such a victory along with a win in Virginia as a rejection of one party for another - or as evidence of renewed strength for their party. Though no matter which of the two outcomes the mandatory partisan spin will claim differently.
The reality is that in terms of 2010 Republicans and Democrats should view the emergence of independent Chris Daggett and the antipathy that both major party nominees engender in New Jersey as a sign that both parties may be in trouble in 2010. Incumbents from either party should be ready for surprises from the voters at the polls in November a year from Tuesday's results - out with the old, and in with the new, may be in regardless of party.
New York's 23rd Congressional District may be the race in which the outcome could be the most surprising and the most misread. If Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman wins in New York's 23rd district this Tuesday the GOP will claim victory and say that Hoffman was a disgruntled member of their party who ran as a third party candidate only because the GOP didn't pick him - and alas their mistake was corrected by the voters and the GOP will welcome Hoffman into their fold. This is pure folly. If Hoffman wins it will be a rejection of both parties in a contest in which the hand picked party nominees and the party campaign committees themselves have spent millions of dollars, and many of those dollars are now being spent to attack Hoffman.
But it's too late - Hoffman may not pull it off - but even if he doesn't, and one of the major party candidates wins by a slim margin, his emergence in the race at all is a signal that 2010 is likely to be a very different election.
What we are seeing in 2009 is that incumbents or the "in" party in each race is having trouble holding on, and that where voters have a choice outside of both major parties enough voters are choosing the independent or third party candidate to rattle both major parties and effect the outcome, if not win the election outright.
I am a Democrat and have been a Democrat all my life and I want Democrats to win in 2009 and 2010. But Republican, or Democrat, it would be a mistake to not see that both of our parties are in trouble and that many of our incumbents in 2010, in both parties, will be in jeopardy.
The Republicans may have two gubernatorial victories on Tuesday and they may claim a victory in NY's 23rd - or they may win none of the three contests. In the best and worst cases the mistake will be to see a partisan victory or the results as a rejection of a single party.
What voters are ready to tell anyone who will listen is that they would like to reject both parties right now if they could. They are trying to find a way to say to both parties, "We want you to change or get out of the way." Both party establishments are in denial. Both party establishments are hard of hearing. And, both party establishments are likely to see the results on Tuesday as Karl Rove sees them - a victory of one party over another. That is the real danger in 2010 and beyond for both parties.