The G.O.P. had two big victories yesterday in off-year elections, winning the race for governor in New Jersey and Virginia for the first time since 1997. The New York Times's coverage was dominated by three themes used to explain away the success of Republicans:
The Republicans won by appearing moderate.
The congressional race in upstate New York revealed deep divisions within the G.O.P.
These off-year elections don't mean much anyway (except when Democrats win).
1) Republicans Won by Moderating:
Even after wins by two conservative Republicans, the Times spin was that moderation had prevailed, arguing that both New Jersey Governor-elect Chris Christie and Virginia Governor-elect Bob McDonnell won by trimming their social conservative stands.
In a Tuesday web post before returns were in, the paper's chief political reporter Adam Nagourney said that even a win by Virginia conservative McDonnell would be a victory for moderation:
Questionable spin watch: If Mr. Hoffman wins in New York, look for conservatives to argue that that the vote is a vindication of the appeal of the populist brand of conservatism pressed by leaders like Ms. Palin. But the way the race has played out in Virginia suggests otherwise. If Mr. McDonnell wins, it will be after having run a race in which he aggressively distanced himself from his history of advocating socially conservative positions, suggesting that Republicans seeking to get back in power in swing states should strike a moderate tone.
David Halbfinger and Ian Urbina made the same argument in Wednesday's lead story, emphasizing the supposed moderation of the Republicans who won:
In Virginia, Mr. McDonnell, avoided divisive social issues, concentrating instead on his plans to create jobs, improve the economy and fix the state's transportation problems.
The victor in Virginia, Mr. McDonnell, 55, is a social and fiscal conservative, but ran on a more moderate platform that appealed to voters in the suburbs in Fairfax County, where he was raised. By contrast, Mr. Deeds, 51, had a difficult time introducing himself to densely populated Northern Virginia.
This is overheated language:
The New York race emerged in the national spotlight after President Obama appointed the district's long-serving congressman, John M. McHugh, a Republican, as secretary of the Army. Almost immediately after local Republican leaders chose Dede Scozzafava, a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights who embraced the federal stimulus package, she came under attack by conservatives as heretical.
Liberals consider Democratic politicians like Sen. Joe Lieberman "heretical," but a Nexis search indicates the Times has never characterized them as intolerant ideologues searching for heretics.
Wednesday's story by Ian Urbina in Richmond, Va. also claimed that Virginia Republican Bob McDonnell won by trimming his social conservative issues and avoiding, in Urbina's awkward phrase, "the farther right end of his party." Why not just come out and say "far right"?
Mr. McDonnell -- though actually quite conservative, opposing abortion rights, gun control and increased taxes -- focused on appealing to moderates and independents. His campaign avoided divisive social issues, and instead highlighted his ideas to create jobs, improve the economy, and fix the state's transportation woes. He regularly emphasized that 90 percent of the legislation he proposed as attorney general passed the General Assembly with strong bipartisan support.
Mr. McDonnell was careful to keep his distance from the farther right end of his party. When the conservative activist Ralph Reed sponsored robocalls to voters featuring former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska asking them to vote their values, Mr. McDonnell's campaign declined to answer questions about the calls and emphasized that the campaign had not asked Ms. Palin to make them.
A Nexis search indicates the Times has never used the phrase "actually quite liberal" in a political story, and has never used the phrase "farther left end" to refer to the Democratic Party.
2) G.O.P. Tearing Itself Apart
The Times suggested that independent Conservative Doug Hoffman's loss in the special congressional race in upstate New York was a sign that divisions continue to wreck the Republican Party from within.
Wednesday's report by Jeremy Peters from upstate New York carried the blunt online headline, "Conservative Loses Upstate House Race in Blow to Right."
Leading conservative voices -- including The Wall Street Journal's editorial page and The Weekly Standard and the talk show personalities Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck -- took on the Republican nominee, Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, who supports gay rights and abortion rights and had embraced some Democratic economic policies like the federal stimulus package. They labeled her as too liberal.
The theme of a divided Republican party also reared up in Peters's story (the Democrats evidently have no schisms worth reporting):
But the race was perhaps most notable for the fissures it opened in the Republican Party. Ms. Scozzafava, who was selected as the Republican nominee by the 11 leaders of the county committees that comprise this vast district along the Canadian border, was excoriated by Washington's conservative establishment almost as soon as she was nominated.
3) 2009 Republican Wins Don't Matter, But Democrat Wins in 2005 Were Huge
Off-year elections give the media ample fodder to speculate how Democrats and Republicans will perform in national elections the upcoming year. But while Democratic wins in New Jersey and Virginia in 2005 were seen as harbingers of Republican doom in 2006, the Times doesn't see much significance in the 2009 Republican wins in New Jersey and Virginia.
The day before the election, chief political reporter Adam Nagourney's "news analysis" came with a hedging headline that seemed to anticipate Republican success: "Outcomes of Off-Year Races May Provide Insight." The text box downplayed the import of the races further: "A referendum on Obama, or isolated local contests?"
One year after the election of President Obama, a handful of off-year political contests -- including governors' races in New Jersey and Virginia and a Congressional race in upstate New York -- offer some clues about how Americans are viewing Mr. Obama, as well as an early measure of the landscape for next year's midterm elections.
But precisely what kind of clues? How much significance should be read into contests that will be determined by a small pool of voters in two states and one Congressional district?
On Wednesday, reporter Ian Urbina also de-emphasized the significance of the Republican wins:
Nevertheless, some factors that played a role in Mr. McDonnell's victory might not reflect a larger shift in the state when it comes to national politics.
In 2008, 53 percent of voters backed Mr. Obama, and exit polls on Tuesday showed that 48 percent of voters approved of his performance.
The Times wasn't so ho-hum after the off-year elections of 2005, a good year for Democrats, who managed to hold on to seats the party already controlled in New Jersey and Virginia. By contrast, yesterday the GOP won in states held by Democrats.
Four years ago, the Times certainly saw those two Democratic victories as significant. Robin Toner's November 9, 2005 wrap-up was headlined "Stinging Defeats for G.O.P. Come at a Sensitive Time." The text box drove up hope for the Democrats for 2006: "In races for governor, Democrats perceive a shifting electoral tide."
After months of sagging poll ratings, scandal and general political unrest, the Republicans badly needed some good news in Tuesday's elections for governor. What they got instead was a clear-cut loss in a red state, and an expected but still painful defeat in a blue one....Republicans argued on Tuesday that Virginia was a local election driven by local events, with little long-term national significance. But the loss clearly stung, as did the double-digit defeat in New Jersey, a blue state that had seemed within reach for the Republicans.
In a front-page story November 9, 2005, David Chen reported on Democrat Tim Kaine winning the governor's race in Virginia:
In Virginia, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, defeated the Republican, Jerry W. Kilgore, sending a powerful message that President Bush's political standing had fallen in this reliably Republican state.
Reporter James Dao used that same formulation in the first line of his story from Virginia:
Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, won the race for governor on Tuesday night, scoring a major political victory for his mentor, Gov. Mark Warner, and sending a powerful message that President Bush's political standing has fallen in this reliably Republican state.