WASHINGTON – With emphatic defeats for Republicans in two gubernatorial races and a hard-fought state constitutional contest this week, Democrats found new cause for optimism and incentives for fundraising Wednesday heading into the 2006 midterm congressional elections.

It may be premature to read too much into contests that kept Democrats in control of governor’s offices in Virginia and New Jersey. But with President Bush’s ratings sliding and Republicans rebuffed from Atlantic City to California Tuesday, Democrats claimed they were clearing a path for victory in next year’s elections.

The White House and Republican Party downplayed off-year elections as local contests devoid of national implications. But they conceded an erosion in both the Republican base and the moderate voters the GOP has worked hard to attract.

“There is no question that we Republicans need to do better in the suburbs,” said Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman. “We need to do better in the cities as well.”

Democrats, meanwhile, read promising signs into the triumphs of their gubernatorial candidates – Tim Kaine in Virginia and Jon Corzine in New Jersey – as well as a repudiation of Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plans for reforming government.

Kaine’s victory in Virginia, for instance, was anchored by a strong suburban vote and capped with close margins of victory in the fast-growing “exurbs” where Republicans had done well in recent years.

All this – combined with polling that portrays voters nationwide as being in an increasingly foul mood and public confidence in Congress running low – could help Democrats recruit promising candidates for the relatively few competitive House and Senate seats. And by creating a feeling of momentum and promise, it could spur the party’s fundraising.

“I’ve never been in a place where winning has hurt the ability to do anything,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is charged with winning House seats for Democrats.

“The Democratic message beat the Republican message,” Emanuel said. “We as Democrats have got to learn from that” in framing the party’s message in 2006. The message, he added, “does have to talk very prevalently about fiscal discipline, putting our house in order while we invest in education and health care.”

Seasoned Democrats readily concede that electing two governors is no guarantee of future performance for a party still struggling with framing a coherent message that can distinguish Democrats from a well-defined Republican Party.

“It’s a good day for Democrats. But it’s over,” said Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “Democrats have their work cut out for them in 2006.

“The mood of the people is they want honesty, they want integrity, they want people of character and substance,” Vilsack said in an interview in Washington. “There are many, many people in the country who are anxious to invest in Democrats and in the Democratic Party. But they are waiting to see if we have a message that resonates and connects with folks.”

The party will start by reminding voters that Democrats have held onto the governor’s office in a state that supported Bush with a 54 percent vote in 2004.

After Bush appeared at an election-eve rally in Richmond for GOP gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore, the White House was ready the morning after Kilgore’s defeat, by a 52-46 margin, to dismiss any implications for the president’s political clout or the party’s prospects in the midterm elections.

“I think any thorough analysis of the gubernatorial elections is going to show that the elections were decided on local and state issues and the candidates and their agendas,” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. “I do not think you can conclude it represents any larger trend whatsoever.”

Mehlman was quick to point out the odd historical pattern in Virginia’s off-year elections since the early 1970s: Whichever party holds the White House fails to take the governor’s mansion.

“Since 1973, the voters of Virginia have voted differently from whoever is in the White House,” Mehlman said. He suggested that Kaine’s election was a resounding vote for the status quo in a state where Kaine aligned himself closely with outgoing Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, who is highly popular and is weighing his presidential prospects for 2008.

Mehlman also noted that, after Democrats won the gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey in 2001, Republicans gained congressional seats in 2002. That congressional gain, however, followed closely on the heels of the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, when Bush was articulating a clear resolve for the war against terrorism and enjoying broad support.

Unlike Virginia, New Jersey is a largely Democratic state, and Corzine’s victory there had been predicted. Still, Republican Doug Forrester put up a spirited fight and Republicans thought they had a shot, only to see Corzine – a sitting senator who opted to move to the governor’s mansion – win by an 11 percent margin.

Among the most striking results in Virginia was that the fast-growing commuter exurbs voted against a Republican Party that carefully courted them. Kilgore lost in the environs of Manassas and Leesburg, miles beyond the reach of Democratic Washington, D.C., and its liberal suburbs. Kaine even won in the home county of conservative evangelist Pat Robertson.

The effect of Bush’s low poll numbers on the Virginia race is up for debate, but clearly the president cannot deliver a victory simply by showing up, as he seemed to be able to do at certain points in his presidency.

The president’s popularity has slid markedly, with his job approval averaging 42 percent in the Gallup Poll in September and October, compared with 52 percent a year earlier. He has lost support both within his base and among swing-voting moderates.

While Bush’s approval among conservative Republicans has slipped from 94 to 87 percent, support among moderate-to-liberal Republicans has dropped from 83 to 69 percent.

Across the continent from Virginia and New Jersey, California voters who seated a one-time body-building champion and current film star as governor in a 2003 special election roundly rejected his agenda for reform Tuesday.

If Schwarzenegger was reveling in his popularity last year, successfully campaigning for Bush’s re-election in pivotal Ohio, this year he has seen his stock plummet.

Californians overwhelmingly rejected his showcase Proposition 76 to slow the growth of state spending, and they turned back another measure to change how legislative and congressional districts are drawn. For good measure, voters rejected Schwarzenegger’s bid to make teachers work longer for tenure and to restrict political fundraising by public employee unions.

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