Voters sent Democrats sobering warnings this week: They’re not crazy about President Obama, the new health-care law or the state of the economy, messages that could cause the party trouble as the 2014 election campaign intensifies.
Tuesday’s gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia provided fresh evidence that the voter mood remains glum and unpredictable.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie coasted to a second term in New Jersey, winning support from traditional Democratic constituencies, such as women and racial minorities. But it’s Virginia that’s being studied particularly closely, because it’s a state that can swing presidential elections.
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Democrats on Wednesday hailed Terry McAuliffe’s victory over tea-party hero Ken Cuccinelli in a race where a mainstream Republican would have been favored. McAuliffe outraised and outspent Cuccinelli by more than three to two, including a late surge of money that allowed him to dominate television advertising.
But all that money — and last-minute appearances by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden — got McAuliffe only a 2.5 percentage- point win.
Democratic problems were on display in this race, trouble that’s likely to dog the party into the coming year:
• Health care. Cuccinelli worked feverishly to make the election a referendum on the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obama-care. Democrats cheered Wednesday, saying that despite all the bad news about the botched website launch, McAuliffe prevailed. But voters signaled that Democrats need to be careful. More than half said they were opposed to the law, and those opponents backed Cuccinelli eight to one. If that opposition intensifies, it could cause trouble in other swing states.
• Obama. Cuccinelli tried to paint McAuliffe as the president’s surrogate. It didn’t work, but in many states: “This president looks like he could be a drag,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an elections analysis website, at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
In Arkansas, for instance, last month’s statewide poll found that 29 percent of likely voters approved of Obama’s performance, while two-thirds disapproved. Those attitudes could hurt incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who faces re-election next year. About a third approved of the job he’s doing.
• Imperiled incumbents. Voters are skeptical of almost anyone who holds office in Washington, Republican or Democrat. “The number one problem in the country is the dysfunction in Washington,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said. A poll by Lake and Republican pollster Ed Goeas, conducted last week, found 87 percent disapproved of the job Congress is doing, while 9 percent approved. While nearly two of three had unfavorable views of congressional Republicans, more than half felt that way about Democrats.
The unknown for Democrats in the 2014 equations is whether the party can separate itself from Obama. Incumbent presidents’ parties usually get battered in their sixth year. Democrats’ ambitions rest partly on confidence that the economy continues to grow. They’re counting on gradual acceptance of the health-care law. Most important, they see a Republican Party with an extremist image that they hope will send fence-sitting voters their way.
McAuliffe’s showing encouraged the Democrats on Wednesday, because he broke a 36-year string of Virginia gubernatorial losses by the party holding the White House and because he attracted lots of money and establishment support.
He’d raised about $34.4 million, compared with Cuccinelli’s $19.7 million, as of Oct. 23, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. McAuliffe spent $32.8 million to his rival’s $19.1 million. Outside groups also poured in millions.
As the 2014 races begin in earnest, analysts give Democrats only a remote chance of winning control of the House. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to control the Senate, which is within reach but more elusive since the Oct. 1-16 partial government shutdown, a boost for Democrats.
Democrats pointed out Wednesday that most of the competitive Senate races next year feature Republican nominating battles between tea-party favorites and more mainstream candidates. The more the tea-party prevails, Democrats think, the better the Democrats’ chances.
Republicans counter by citing the success of the pragmatic Christie and other Republican governors in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, whose seats are up for re-election next year. A memo this week from Republican National Committee Political Director Chris McNulty urged patience in the effort to engage racial minorities, women and others who have voted Democratic in recent years. “Building a truly national party with a year-round presence takes time,” he said.
Despite divisions, Republicans are united around some important themes, notably opposition to the health-care law, a desire for lower or stable taxes, and highlighting the stumbles of the Obama administration. Railing against Obama can be a powerful force, Kondik said.