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What McDonnell's Win Means for the GOP, Obama

(AP)
Republican Bob McDonnell is Virginia's new governor-elect, ending 8 years of Democratic reign and his victory over Democrat Creigh Deeds comes just 1 year after President Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia since 1964.

So what happened?

First off, turnout is always lower for off-year elections and, it turns out, those record numbers that came out to support Mr. Obama last year stayed home this year.

Exit polls back this up: African-American turnout was 15 percent this year (20 percent in 2008) and voters aged 18-29 only made up 10 percent of the vote today – down over 50 percent from last year, when young voters made up 21 percent of Virginia's vote.

That combined with McDonnell's deft navigation of this year's contest by downplaying his social conservative views and emphasizing important local issues such as taxes and transportation and while Deeds debated how to align himself with Mr. Obama as well as waffling on such issues state taxes, it didn't come as much of a surprise to observers that McDonnell won easily.

Well, what does this say about Mr. Obama's presidency?

Not much. Exit polling showed that 57 percent of voters said that the president wasn't a factor in their vote for governor.

However, that doesn't mean he won't get some of the blame. Republicans will be more than happy to suggest that McDonnell's win is a rejection of Mr. Obama's policies.

"The Republican Party's overwhelming victory in Virginia is a blow to President Obama and the Democrat Party," Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said in a statement. "It sends a clear signal that voters have had enough of the president's liberal agenda."

University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato told CBS News he thinks this criticism will most likely be short-lived.

"Everything will change the day health care reform passes and suddenly there will be talk about a regenerated presidency, a new tough Obama who makes things happen, so this is the typical response to the daily headlines," said Sabato.

Republican criticism aside, there will be questions about whether Mr. Obama can transfer his political magic to others as well as his ability to drive turnout, especially if he's trying to help less-than-stellar candidates in next year's midterm elections.

With the president again not on the ballot in 2010, and voters focused on national issues when they cast their ballots for congressional candidates, those questions about Mr. Obama's coattails will only be magnified as the midterms grow closer.

Meantime, Republicans are clearly buoyed by McDonnell's win, snagging a victory in a state that has been trending Democratic in recent years.

But that excitement will be tempered by the reality of the continued debate within the Republican Party about whether to emphasize its right-wing base or to soften up in an attempt to appeal to more moderates.

McDonnell's success was partly based on downplaying his social conservative views and making a somewhat moderate play for independent votes (he even asked Sarah Palin not to campaign on his behalf).

And that play worked: independents broke for McDonnell 62-37 percent.

His strategy contrasts what happened in New York's 23rd congressional district where local - and national conservatives forced out the more moderate GOP nominee in favor of a staunch conservative third-party candidate.

Ultimately, whether the GOP follows the lessons of McDonnell's success in politically-on-the-fence Virginia or the lessons of the loud-and-proud right-wing base in NY-23, that, rather than anything to do with Mr. Obama, may very well turn out to be the biggest takeaway from the Virginia governor's race.

Read more Election Day Coverage:

McDonnell Wins in Va.; Close Race in N.J.
McDonnell Won Due to Turnout, Independents
Exit Polls in Va. and N.J.: The Obama (Non) Factor?
Washington Unplugged: A Referendum on Obama?
Schieffer: Hard Right Driving the GOP Train



Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' Political Director. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.
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