FAIRFAX STATION, Va. — President Barack Obama and the Democrats have a problem heading into next year's elections for control of Congress — they're losing independents to the Republicans and parts of their own Democratic base to apathy.
Strong majorities of independents turned away from Democrats and voted Republican in both Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday, a key defection signaling that they could be up for grabs heading into the 2010 elections. They went for the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Virginia by a margin of 66 percent to 33 percent, and in New Jersey by 60 percent to 40 percent, according to exit polls.
Magnifying the challenge, the swing isn't limited to those two states. A new McClatchy-Ipsos poll found that independents have pulled away from Obama steadily for months and have turned sharply against his highest domestic priority, the plan to overhaul the nation's health care system.
Democrats also face challenges energizing their base in the 2010 elections when 36 senators and the entire House of Representatives will be up for election. In Virginia on Tuesday, for example, voters under age 30 made up just 10 percent of the vote, less than half the 22 percent they comprised last year when Obama won the Old Dominion, the first time it voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.
The new poll this week found independents nationally turning ever more skeptical toward Obama, helping drive his job approval rating to 53 percent, the lowest of his presidency.
Only 45 percent of independents now approve of how Obama's doing his job, down 12 points from August and 25 points from the start of his term. Disapproval among independents has more than doubled in his first 10 months, to 41 percent from 19 percent.
Independents also have turned sharply against the health care plans being pushed by Obama and Democrats in Congress, the McClatchy-Ipsos poll found. After narrowly supporting the proposals by a margin of 39 percent to 37 percent in late August, independents now oppose it by 53 percent to 29 percent. Democrats and Republicans were virtually unchanged over the same period.
"A big chunk of the decline comes from independents," said Clifford Young, a pollster at Ipsos Public Affairs.
Obama's job approval dropped as the honeymoon of his new presidency wore off, but independents also are wary of the big government they see coming from his administration and the Democratic Congress.
"It's also the policy agenda," Young said. "Independents tend to be a little more liberal on social values and a little more conservative when it comes to the role of government. There are questions about the role of government, especially in health care."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the chairman of his party's Senate campaign committee, said that sentiment helped drive independents to the Republicans.
"Independent-minded voters in purple and blue states sent a clear message," Cornyn said, adding that they "voted for reining in government spending, restoring fiscal responsibility and re-establishing checks and balances in their states."
The White House insisted that the Democrats' loss of the governor's offices in New Jersey and Virginia had nothing to do with Obama.
"I think the data from the gubernatorial races demonstrates that voters went to the polls in those two contests to talk about and work though very local issues that didn't involve the president," press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
He said that exit polls showed that a majority of voters in the two states said that Obama wasn't a factor in their decisions. However, many Obama voters evidently stayed home, as 51 percent of Tuesday's voters in Virginia had voted for Republican John McCain last year, according to exit polls.
Democrats did find one bit of good news in Tuesday's results, hoping that Republicans will continue to engage in an ideological civil war that weakens them, as it did in Tuesday's special election for an upstate New York congressional seat.
There, conservatives such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Fox News commentators such as Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity attacked the Republican nominee as a liberal and backed a conservative third-party candidate instead.
Money flowed to the conservative, the Republican angrily dropped out and a Democrat won the seat for the first time since 1872.
Emboldened by their success at driving the moderate Republican out — and sidestepping their loss of the seat — conservatives now vow to step up their challenges to other moderate Republicans, such as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who's seeking the Republican Senate nomination.
"The cause goes on," Palin said on her Facebook page.
"The war for the heart and soul of the GOP has begun," said conservative strategist Richard Viguerie.
Democrats hope the conservatives' crusade will lead Republicans to nominate candidates too conservative to win in places such as the Northeast and drive moderates to the Democratic Party.
"What occurred in New York has exposed a war within the Republican Party that will not soon end," said outgoing Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
"It played itself out in Pennsylvania earlier this year when longtime Republican Senator Arlen Specter became a Democrat and is playing itself out in House, Senate and gubernatorial races nationwide. The all-out war between Republicans and the far right wing is a disaster for the Republican Party and will dog it well after today."
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