WASHINGTON AND MADISON, WIS. — Even before voters went to the polls this week, moderate congressional Democrats were anxious. Would the swing voters who coalesced around Barack Obama almost exactly one year ago stay with the Democrats or defect to the Republicans?
The answer came Tuesday night as Republican gubernatorial candidates swept to power in New Jersey and Virginia, with the help of large packs of self-described independents.
Exit polls circulating on the House floor Wednesday were even more unnerving to Democrats. The Republican candidates, the polls indicated, had received the votes of two-thirds of independent voters.
Now, as the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate prepare for next year's midterm elections, some moderate Democrats are wondering whether they can afford to follow President Obama's ambitious legislative agenda on such controversial issues as healthcare and climate change. One said the results were a "wake-up call."
"There are going to be a lot more tensions between the White House and Congress," predicted Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats. "They've been under the surface so far -- and they're going to come out in the open."
The president's agenda already has been bogged down by an extended and draining battle over healthcare, one that could stretch into the new year.
After that bruising fight, bitter conflicts loom over climate change, financial market reform and immigration. That sets up a potential conflict between the White House and some Democrats who want to avoid controversial votes that can -- and almost certainly will -- be used against them by their opponents in next year's campaigns.
Ironically, those same exit polls indicate that Obama remains relatively popular with voters, even among those who chose Republican candidates Tuesday.
But "lesser mortals need to be worried about their independent voters," Cooper said, "because they have shifted strongly against Democrats in recent months. Independent voters tend to look at the issue, not the party, and they don't like a lot of what Congress has done."
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said that Democrats such as Cooper had reason to be nervous.
"Republicans won independents by 2 to 1. It was overwhelming. It was breathtaking," Ayres said. "That is a huge shift since the last two elections in a very short amount of time."
Ayres said that his polling data indicate a clear shift in the independent vote starting in April. He said that "spending and debt" are the reasons -- "starting with the bailouts, followed up with the stimulus package, the budget with its $1-trillion deficit, healthcare with another trillion."
The White House, however, maintained Wednesday that the outcomes in Virginia and New Jersey had little to do with Obama's policy agenda, and aides rejected suggestions that Congress may be more skeptical of that agenda going forward.
"I think the data from the gubernatorial races demonstrates that voters went to the polls in those two contests to talk about and work through very local issues that didn't involve the president," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Asked whether Blue Dogs and other moderates might be less inclined to support Obama's agenda, he said, "I don't think they will, and I'm not concerned."
In fact, some in the Democratic Party argued that the Democratic hopeful in Virginia, R. Creigh Deeds, damaged his campaign by trying to distance himself from Obama. Deeds even ran ads criticizing the Democratic climate change bill and refused to refer to himself as an "Obama Democrat." He lost in a landslide to Republican Bob McDonnell, 59% to 41%.
Obama's grass-roots support "is only transferable insomuch as the candidate in the race is willing to embrace the president," said one Democratic official, who spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing campaign dynamics. "I don't think it's all that surprising that Obama supporters weren't enthusiastic about a candidate who, in their view, dissed President Obama."
Exit polls showed that a fifth of the voters who supported McDonnell had a favorable opinion of Obama. That number was even higher in New Jersey among those who voted for the Republican candidate, Christopher Christie.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who heads the Democratic election effort in the House, said that Democrats, in fact, were vindicated by Tuesday's results.
"There were only two elections yesterday that had to do with what Congress is doing and the Obama agenda," Van Hollen said, citing congressional races in California and New York, both of which were won by Democrats. The New York victory came somewhat as a surprise, as Democrat Bill Owens beat back a surge by conservative candidate Doug Hoffman.
The House is expected to vote on its version of a healthcare bill as soon as Saturday, while the Senate remains weeks away from a final vote.