The text message from my Democratic operative friend popped up on my BlackBerry at exactly 10:19 p.m., just as it was becoming clear that Jon Corzine was not going to be re-elected governor of New Jersey.
Bloodbath! That's all the message said. Later, said operative noted with deepening despair that Democrats were even losing in Westchester County, N.Y. All in all, it was a bad night for Democrats, and as the top Democrat in the land, it was a bad night for Barack Obama, too. But that’s as far as it goes.
This was no referendum on the Obama presidency, and his popularity numbers continue to show that. It was, on some level, a test of how well the Obama coalition would hold up a year after it pulled off the stunning feat of electing a black, freshman senator with an African name to the presidency of the United States. But it was always a hard ask for a coalition, built so much on excitement, to hold together for Jon Corzine in New Jersey or Creigh Deeds in Virginia, who together, are not as exciting as watching paint dry.
Still, this is hardly the time for Democrats to despair. The GOP wins contain their own simple parable; 2009 is not 2008; 2010 will not be 2009.
Republicans have every right to be jubilant about Tuesday’s results. It was a good night for them. They have not had one of those politically since 2004 when George W. Bush won a second term and then spent the next four years driving his party off the cliff. As they say at the racetrack at the end of a long losing streak, “They were due.”
But it’s hard to make the case that Tuesday's result are predictive of the 2010 midterms, unless, of course, Democrats buy into the notion that Republicans have now suddenly acquired some “momentum” based on public apprehension about President Obama and his policies. There is a name for that kind of Democratic buy-in; it's called Creigh-Deeds-ism, and it will get you shellacked, as Deeds was in Virginia on Tuesday.
The bottom line is this: If the president is not able to make the case next summer that the economy is improving and that the job markets have started to bounce back, voters are going to have to take it out on somebody, and since Barack Obama is not on the ticket, any Democrat will do.
If the economy is doing better and Republicans continue to offer no alternatives to the president's proposals—which they so vehemently oppose—they are likely to be disappointed. The high-profile Democratic losses on Tuesday had as much to do with the personal disadvantages of the individual Democrats than with some nascent rehabilitation of the Republican Party.
In New Jersey, Jon Corzine has had disapproval rating in the mid-50s since the summer of 2008, long before Barack Obama was president. And in Virginia, Creigh Deeds never could explain what he wanted to do as governor—except distance himself from some of Obama's policies.
Are there warning signs in Tuesday’s results for Democrats? Certainly. The big loss among Independents could mean trouble next year. Or it could be that people who called themselves independent in 2008 decided to pick the better candidates in 2009, candidates who just happen to be Republican. For everyone on the ballot next year, that's the real takeaway: Be the better candidate.
Democrats already have a model in the White House.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.