WASHINGTON -- During long campaign swings in Virginia's recent gubernatorial campaign, Bob McDonnell's staff would count the cars that sported both Obama and McDonnell bumper stickers. These ideologically confused motorists turned out to be an important demographic. On Election Day, according to exit polls, about one in 10 voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008 said they voted for McDonnell, the Republican.
Cable television debates offer a choice between extremes. Competitive statewide elections are a fight for the middle. This is the contest Republicans won on Tuesday.
Given the breadth of Obama's victory a year ago, Republicans had no choice but to seek the support of wavering Obama voters and independents. McDonnell, in particular, went after them with unflappable discipline -- speaking respectfully of Obama, while seizing the momentum of economic discontent. Obama won just under half of Virginia independent voters last year. On Tuesday, McDonnell carried 66 percent.
Both McDonnell and New Jersey's governor-elect, Chris Christie, were blessed with opponents who combined weakness and viciousness in equal measure. But the ideological atmosphere for the election was determined by Obama himself. When I interviewed McDonnell in September, he saw the first signs of an anti-Democratic backlash among Virginia businesspeople who were concerned about the "card check" bill (which would allow union organization without a majority vote). Then a broader resentment about the level of spending and new burdens imposed by cap-and-trade climate legislation. Then the summer of health care reform discontent.
The White House now dismisses Tuesday's losses as the reflection of "local issues" -- as though the Virginia outcome was determined by zoning disputes on the proposed site of a new 7-Eleven. When one of the primary concerns of the electorate is the direction of the economy, all politics is national.
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