WASHINGTON -- If last week's governors elections and the exuberant Democratic claims that followed sounded familiar, that's because it was, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, "deja vu all over again."
Four years ago, Democrats also won the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey in the only two statewide contests that took place in that 2001 off-year election. The next day Democrats and political news analysts were saying the results proved Republicans were in trouble and would suffer serious losses in the 2002 elections.
But things didn't turn out that way. The Republicans, with some nonstop campaigning by President Bush, made sizeable gains in the House and Senate and maintained their majority in the governorships. And they went on to make further gains in 2004 and hold on to their advantage over the Democrats in the state capitals.
Nevertheless, Democratic leaders and political pundits were once again making 2001-esque claims last week after the GOP's twin losses in Virginia and New Jersey. Not only were they raising the prospect of a Democratic takeover on Capitol Hill next year, but saying the results were all due to a voter backlash against President Bush and his party.
"It's going to be a real shot in the arm for Democratic efforts to take back the House and Senate in 2006," said New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. As to what caused last Tuesday's results, well, Schumer huffed and puffed, it was "a clear repudiation of George W. Bush and the Republican agenda."
But it doesn't take a lot of deep insight to discover there's a lot of exaggeration going on here.
First, let's dismiss any trends out of New Jersey. Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine won because of a nearly 2-to-1 Democratic advantage, an ultra-liberal agenda and a lot of get-out-the-vote money that Corzine gave to black church leaders and union bosses. It is hard to see how Bush or his party affected this race at all.
Second, as Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman said after the results were in: "This was a status-quo election day. There were 28 Republican governors before the election and there were 28 Republican governors after the election."
Virginia, however, tells a little different story, but not in the way many liberal Democratic leaders are portraying it.
Consider the kind of centrist to right-of-center campaign Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine ran. He focused on bread-and-butter economic-growth issues, transportation gridlock and roads. He campaigned as a Second Amendment Democrat who supported gun rights, and talked openly and frequently about his religious faith and values -- issues that are not in the national Democratic Party's mantra.
Kaine, in other words, used the campaign playbook of Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, who followed a similar game plan in his election four years ago. Little wonder then, that, with Warner finishing his term with an 82 percent approval rating and Virginia's economy one of the most robust in the country, voters wanted the closest thing to a second Warner term, and chose Kaine over former attorney general Jerry Kilgore, who ran a weak, vague and inept campaign.
Missing from most of the national post-election analysis, however, is the fact that outside of the governor's office, Republicans won the No. 2 and No. 3 statewide contests for lieutenant governor and attorney general and lost only one seat in the state legislature, which they control.
It is difficult to fathom how Bush's slump in the national polls plays into what happened in either of these elections. When his approval polls were at 87 percent four years ago, the GOP still lost Virginia and New Jersey.
Even so, Democrats appear to be making a foothold in Virginia, a state that was once reliably Republican and still is in presidential elections. Bush carried Virginia with nearly 54 percent of the vote. If there is a lesson Virginia's Republicans need to learn, it is the critical importance of running on galvanizing issues that energize and unite their party's base and reach out to new voters among independents and swing Democrats.
The GOP needs to go back and reread the campaign playbooks of two former Republican governors. Both ran on popular, signature issues that cut across all political lines. George Allen campaigned on a get-tough-on-crime platform that called for abolishing parole. James Gilmore called for repealing the hated car tax and not only cruised to victory, he swept the Democrats out of power in the legislature.
Kilgore had no such large signature issue to overcome a resurgent, centrist-leaning Democratic game plan. Does any of this suggest that a trend is building toward a congressional turnover in November 2006? Not as long as polls show most Americans like the job their own member of Congress is doing.