Times Downplays Possible Dem Losses in Virginia, NJ - But It Was Bigger Deal in 2005

Chief political reporter Adam Nagourney's Friday "Political Memo" put the spotlight on how Democrats are trailing in races for the only two governor's seats up for grab in 2009, in New Jersey and Virginia: "Some Will Look to Results of 2 Governor Races to See How Obama Is Doing." Note that only "some" will take these results seriously if the Democrats lose.

The last time these seats were contested was 2005. Republicans were defeated in both Virginia and New Jersey that year, losses the Times called "stinging" and an indication that "President Bush's political standing has fallen."

Nagourney is more sanguine about how Democratic losses in November would affect Obama's standing. Here's his lead:

President Obamahas returned to the campaign trail. He is appearing in television advertisements in New Jersey this week on behalf of Gov.Jon S. Corzine, the embattled Democrat struggling to win a second term. And he campaigned on Thursday evening alongsideR. Creigh Deeds, the candidate for governor fighting to keep Virginia in the Democratic column.

The New Jersey and Virginia races for governor are the only big-ticket political contests for 2009. And fairly or not - Mr. Obama's advisers are not alone in arguing that the significance of these races does not extend beyond the boundaries of either state - the contests are being held up as an early measure of how Mr. Obama is doing and a predictor of how Democrats might fare in next year's Congressional campaigns.

This is posing complications for the White House, as it dispatches Mr. Obama to help. Early polls show Republicans have staked out leads in the two states:Robert F. McDonnell, the former Republican attorney general, over Mr. Deeds to fill the seat being vacated byTim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, andChristopher J. Christie, a Republican former prosecutor, over Mr. Corzine in New Jersey.

Officials in both parties say that in the end, the races will be driven by local forces and concerns and note that historically, state midterm elections have proved to be poor prognosticators about future elections.

Deeper inside, Nagourney had a less optimistic read, watching the Virginia Democrat distancing himself from Obama (an effort that reminded Times Watch of how Democrats treated Bill Clinton in 1993).

And it is increasingly looking like the Virginia race could be cast as a verdict on Mr. Obama as well. Sensing that Mr. Obama's popularity is ebbing and that voters are turning against him on issues like health care, Republicans are signaling that they want to frame the Virginia race in part as a referendum on Mr. Obama. Mr. McDonnell has been attacking his policies on spending and health care, putting Mr. Deeds in a position that would have seemed unimaginable four months ago: having to distance himself from the president.

Nagourney certainly didn't downplay the significance of a 2006 California special election actually won by Republican Brian Bilbray 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."(Admittedly, the Times wishful thinking was right on that one, as shown by the 2006 and 2008 election results.)