Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Republican victories in Va., N.J. hinged on economic worries

Voters worried about jobs and the shaky economy helped drive Republican gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey, according to exit polls, adding political urgency to Democratic efforts to combat the nation's surging unemployment rate.

While top White House officials dismissed suggestions that Tuesday's election amounted to a referendum on President Obama, gleeful Republicans portrayed the outcome as a signal of growing discontent with the president's economic initiatives.

"Certainly the president has put forth policies that are different, controversial, but I think out of the mainstream of where America is," said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele, who called the election a "checkpoint" on Obama's policies. "America doesn't want the federal government running its health care. America doesn't want the federal government buying its cars for it and telling it what cars to drive. America doesn't want the federal government running its banks."

With the nation's unemployment rate nearing 10 percent, Republicans Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia and Chris Christie of New Jersey both campaigned heavily on the issue of jobs. Voters in both states rated the economy as the top issue, even if it was not the dominant concern it was a year ago. But in a major shift, voters who said they were "very worried" about the economy broke decidedly toward the Republican candidates this year after tilting heavily toward Obama in 2008.

That reversal accompanies a sharp increase in joblessness in each state over the past year. Unemployment in New Jersey stood at 9.8 percent in September, up four percentage points over the previous September. In Virginia, meanwhile, unemployment stood at 6.7 percent in September, up from 4.1 percent a year earlier.

"A year ago, the economy was bad, Bush was in charge, and if you wanted to change the economy you voted for Obama and against McCain," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist. "In this case, the incumbent officeholders are Democrats. And if the economy is bad, there is a certain tendency to vote against those in power."

Christina Hoag, 58, who owns a catering business with about 25 employees in McLean, said that she hoped a Republican victory would slow government growth and block a health-care plan that she believes would hinder future economic growth. She said that with her vote for McDonnell and other Republicans, she wanted to send the message to Democrats that they do not have a mandate to remake the economy.

"Small businesses can't absorb what the government thinks we can absorb, especially in today's economy," she said at her polling place. "There's anger right now within ourselves, and I think most of that comes from uncertainty and fear."

Despite the shift in sentiment by voters concerned about the economy, White House aides signaled no changes in their approach to the president's ambitious initiatives to overhaul the health-care system, limit greenhouse-gas emissions and stoke job creation.

White House officials said they knew long before the election that the economy was on voters' minds. "I don't think the president needed an election or exit poll to come to that conclusion," said Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary.

Employers have slashed 8 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007. While the rate of job losses has slowed substantially in the wake of Obama's economic initiatives and the overall economy has begun to expand again after a year of shrinking, economists have said it could be many months before the jobless rate begins to decline

The gloomy employment picture has pushed the administration and its congressional allies to highlight the job-creation aspects of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan enacted in February, while economic advisers weigh new ideas for creating jobs.

Meanwhile, the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board has recommended ramping up federal efforts to weatherize homes and public buildings. It also urged establishment of an infrastructure bank, which would allow the federal government to sell bonds for large infrastructure projects, an idea Obama advocated during the presidential campaign.

The Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would extend unemployment benefits, the $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers and a package of small-business tax cuts. The House is expected to follow suit shortly.

"The president is governing in historically challenging economic times, and the economy will be a top issue in the 2010 elections," said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House deputy communications director. "But we knew that before Tuesday."

Staff writers Jon Cohen and James Hohmann contributed to this report.

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