The fragile crystal ball

They wisely stated the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia reflected political dynamics unique to those states and weren’t a referendum on the new president. And they correctly predicted that the outcome of a special congressional contest would say more about their party’s prospects in the upcoming midterm elections.

Of course, that was eight years ago.

When Democrats Jim McGreevey (N.J.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerOvernight Tech: Facebook faces crisis over Cambridge Analytica data | Lawmakers demand answers | What to watch for next | Day one of AT&T's merger trial | Self-driving Uber car kills pedestrian Overnight Cybersecurity: Trump-linked data firm Cambridge Analytica attracts scrutiny | House passes cyber response team bill | What to know about Russian cyberattacks on energy grid Cambridge Analytica: Five things to watch MORE (Va.) won their respective races for governor, Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Jim Gilmore argued against divining any national political implications.

“Gubernatorial and mayoral races are inherently local races,” he said. “As voters turn their attention from city hall and statehouses toward the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives,” the GOP’s national brand would generate victories at the ballot box.

Then-RNC spokesman Trent Duffy explained why. “Federal issues will be front and center, not local roads and other issues,” he said.

Earlier that year, the national GOP cheered the results of a special election in Virginia’s 4th district — a seat that went Republican after nearly two decades in the Democratic column. “I think it is a referendum on the president,” Gilmore said. Why was that contest a reflection on then-President George W. Bush, while the gubernatorial campaigns were not? “That was a federal race,” said Duffy.

Turns out there was something to the Republican read on the 2001 results. The following year, the GOP added eight seats to its healthy House majority. In the Senate, Republicans gained two seats, enough to retake control of that chamber.

This week, the 2001 elections played out in reverse, with GOP victories in both New Jersey and Virginia. On Election Day, Republican Chris Christie (N.J.) discounted the Obama factor. “What this is all about is me and Jon Corzine,” he said. Exit polls support that notion, with 60 percent of New Jersey voters stating Obama didn’t affect their vote. Fifty-six percent of Virginia voters said the same.

In New York’s 23rd district, Bill Owens pulled off a surprising upset, becoming the first Democrat to win that seat since before the Civil War. It’s the second time this year that a special election has resulted in a seat flipping from Republican to Democrat.

Messrs. Gilmore and Duffy would no doubt view this as a bad sign for Republicans next year, as 2009’s only competitive federal contests have added to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) majority.

The truth is that off-year elections don’t say much about the state of either national party. But Gilmore and Duffy were right about one thing: Midterm elections are defined by federal issues.

In 2002, Republicans benefited from Bush’s strong approval rating and an intense focus on national security. In 2010, congressional Democrats will be linked to Obama’s poll numbers, which will be shaped by his record on the economy and healthcare.

Last month, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that just 20 percent of Americans identify as Republicans — the lowest level in more than a quarter-century. So when RNC Chairman Michael Steele declares that GOP victories this week mean the “Republican renaissance has begun,” it’s hard to take him seriously.

The real test of national party strength isn’t found in off-year elections, but in the congressional midterms. And once those are over, we’ll have all sorts of new data to over-interpret.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.