The New York Times' Election Day 2009 coverage emphasized three liberal themes:
# 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).
Chief political reporter Adam Nagourney modeled the NYT's conventional wisdom on Campaign 2009 perfectly, emphasizing all three of the Times' campaign themes in his Wednesday "news analysis," "A Year After Dousing, Republicans' Hope Is Rekindled ." The text box: "Republicans win but face continued upheaval."
First, Nagourney recited the "deep divisions" cliche:
The Republican victories in the races for New Jersey and Virginia governors put the party in a stronger position to turn back the political wave President Obama unleashed last year, setting the stage for Republicans to raise money, recruit candidates and ride the excitement of an energized base as the party heads into next year's midterm elections.
But a Democratic victory in an upstate New York Congressional district - after an ideologically pitched battle between moderates and conservatives over how best to lead Republicans back to power - signaled that the Republican Party faces continued upheaval. The Democratic victory came over a conservative candidate who, with the enthusiastic backing of national conservative leaders and well-financed grass-roots organizations, had forced out a Republican candidate who supported abortion rights and gay rights.
The results in the New Jersey and Virginia races underscored the difficulties Mr. Obama is having transforming his historic victory a year ago into either a sustained electoral advantage for Democrats or a commanding ideological position over conservatives in legislative battles.
Still, even as Republicans celebrated their first wisp of good news in more than a year, they confronted results likely to fuel a continuation of the arguments that have torn the party with increased intensity in recent days.
That upstate race drew national attention after conservatives pushed aside the Republican Party and rallied around their preferred candidate, Douglas L. Hoffman on the Conservative Party ticket, asserting that the party should back only fervent conservatives, rather than accept candidates who veered from party dogma on issues like abortion and financial restraint.
If a Republican agrees with the Democrats on both social and fiscal issues, what's left that's actually Republican?
Next up for Nagourney: The "moderate" argument:
In those two states, which, in their size and diversity, might offer a better testing ground for a party looking for new approaches, Mr. Christie and Mr. McDonnell won after decidedly playing down their conservative views on social issues. Their relentless focus on jobs and the economy - voters in both states listed those as their top issues in exit polls - appeared to blunt the effort of Democrats to undercut the candidates by pointing to their history of conservatism on social issues.
Nagourney moved on to the third point: These off-year elections don't matter anyway.
For Republicans, the results on Tuesday were welcome news after one of the party's toughest years. But the victories occurred on a relatively small playing ground. And in an off-year election, far fewer voters turn out than in a general election.
The results will certainly lift the Republican Party for some period. Yet history suggests they will not necessarily predict what will happen in the far more consequential races next year, when 39 governors' seats, 38 Senate seats and the entire House is up for re-election.
Well, sometimes they do predict: The GOP swept New Jersey and Virginia in 1993, which was followed by a 54-seat gain and control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
Nagourney was much more confident of the predictive value of a special congressional election in an August 2006 story (scroll down), an election actually won by Republican Brian Bilbray, albeit in a race closer than anticipated. Nagourney's front-page story hailed the result as a resounding victory...for the Democrats: "Narrow Victory by G.O.P. Signals Fall Problems."
- Clay Waters is the director of Times Watch , an MRC project tracking the New York Times.