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Slate's Politics: GOP Losses in Off-Year Vote

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, after days of rioting in the French suburbs, we look at why police there have had such trouble quelling the violence.

But first, Democrats are feeling pretty good today after yesterday's election results. Here in California, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's initiatives failed. And in New Jersey and Virginia, Democratic governors were elected. Joining us with analysis is John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate.

Hi, John.

JOHN DICKERSON (Slate): Hello.

BRAND: Well, first of all, let's talk about the significance of those two governors races, New Jersey and Virginia. Those were both very nasty campaigns, and both seemed fairly close. But in the end the Democrats won, and so what does this mean?

DICKERSON: It basically means that in those local races, the Democrats were the better candidates. There will be a lot of talk about what this means for the national picture, and it certainly hurts Republicans nationally because the Republicans are in bad shape. Voters are saying they prefer Democrats in office to Republicans, there's a lot of scandal around the Senate and the House and the White House, which are all in Republican control. But pretty much everybody agrees that these were local elections.

BRAND: So what about harbingers? What about this being, as some Democrats would like to say, a referendum on President Bush?

DICKERSON: It's not that, but it's not good for Republicans. And one thing we can certainly all agree on is that this is great for Democratic spirits, it's going to be very helpful in recruiting candidates to run for House seats in the 2006 elections. And for a Democratic party that's had some internal angst, this is just a great day to be a Democrat. And so it means that Democrats are all feeling good, everybody's going to try and sort of create their own good news coming out of this. So in that way, it does certainly help the Democrats over the Republicans, but it's a long way between now and the 2006 elections and it's just too early to say what role Bush or the national issues have or will have on local races.

BRAND: The president did do some last-minute campaigning in Virginia for the Republican candidate. What are the conversations now in the White House about whether or not that was a good idea?

DICKERSON: Well, the conversations are about how this is off-year elections, particularly in these two states, don't really have any predictive value about the next election. There's a lot of effort to sort of talk about why this doesn't mean anything broader. But there is worry in the White House and in Republican circles that the president needs to shore up his base with whom he's had a fight recently over the Harriet Miers nomination, and they will be looking very closely at the effect of his last-minute visit and how that affected Republicans. Did it get them out to the polls? Republicans have been studying very closely what they can do to turn their team out, and they're going to have a lot of studying to do to see what went wrong here in Virginia.

BRAND: And what about on Capitol Hill? Next year, the entire House of Representatives is up for re-election; a third of the Senate is. So is this vote going to affect their plans in terms of how they're going to campaign?

DICKERSON: Absolutely. Democrats are energized and Republicans are nervous, and this only exacerbated those trends. Pollsters say by a margin now of anywhere from 15 to 20 points, Americans are telling pollsters that they prefer Democrats in office in the House and Senate to Republicans. And while these off-year elections are usually about local issues, the trend is, and the momentum is, in favor of sort of a nationalized kind of election. Democrats would certainly love that, and Republicans are now going to be working very hard to try to beat back this trend that yesterday's results only exacerbated.

BRAND: And, John, what does this say about the leadership of the Democratic Party under Howard Dean? He had been criticized by people of his own party for being too on the fringes. So what does this say about his leadership?

DICKERSON: I'm not sure what this says about Howard Dean. It's certainly good for him as the leader of the Democratic Party. And you're right, he was criticized. But again, since these elections were local affairs, I think there will be plenty of people in the Democratic Party who've been critical of Dean who will still have their same views and won't necessarily be changed by these outcomes.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate.

Thanks a lot, John.

DICKERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.