Votes show tide turning against Dems

Freedom New Mexico

Tuesday’s election results may not signal that the Republicans are back as a party capable of putting together a winning national coalition, and the result in New York’s 23rd congressional district might presage a bitter intraparty squabble.

But as much as White House spokespeople attempted to downplay the significance of gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, there are reasons for Democrats to be concerned.

Exit polls in both Virginia and New Jersey indicated that most voters did not consider the elections a referendum on President Obama, and the president remains personally popular. But fully 89 percent of New Jerseyites and 85 percent of Virginians are worried about the direction of the economy, with about half in each state “very” worried.

Since voters generally blame a lousy economy on the party in power, if economic growth hasn’t kicked in or if it is still a “jobless recovery” next November, Democrats will have reason to be concerned.

On the other hand, Republicans are fully capable of shooting themselves in the foot. In New York’s 23rd Congressional District, held for more than 100 years by Republicans, populist-minded conservatives united around opposition to the party’s designated candidate, Assemblywoman Dede Scozzofava, deemed too pro-choice and too gay-friendly.

Led by Sarah Palin, various conservatives endorsed Doug Hoffman running on the Conservative Party line, and Scozzofava dropped out and endorsed the Democrat, Bill Owens.

Result: Owens won and the Democratic House majority was increased by one.

Tea party types are considering challenging moderate Republicans like Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (running for Senate). Whether the result will be a healthy debate that defines and invigorates the party or a bloodbath that leaves vulnerable Democrats in power is up in the air.

A year can be forever in politics, so it’s wise not to infer too much. But discontent over the economy suggests Democrats can’t afford to be complacent.

The results are also likely to influence President Obama’s policy agenda, especially on health care. Moderate to conservative Democrats elected in normally Republican-leaning districts in 2006 and 2008 may think twice before casting votes likely to be considered controversial back home.

Maine voters passed a referendum that invalidates a legislative decision to allow gay marriage, meaning gay marriage has still not gained majority approval in any state. But Maine also decisively passed a measure setting up a distribution method for medical marijuana, suggesting this modest reform (still resisted by the federal government) remains popular among actual people.