Three off-year elections are bearing the heavy burden of being political barometers. By Mark Willen, Senior Political Editor November 2, 2009 Who said off-year elections aren’t fun? This one’s going to be a doozy, with a great deal at stake for anyone who cares about politics and the direction of the country, which ought to be everyone. That doesn’t mean the results will be clear-cut; whatever they are, everyone will have their own interpretation (or spin). Here’s a guide on what to look for in Tuesday’s contests:Virginia. There’s no question that Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell will win, maybe by double digits, and the GOP will deserve a large helping of bragging rights. The last two governors were Democrats, both senators are, and President Obama, who campaigned for Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, won the state in 2008. So it’s a big deal that Republicans are putting Virginia back in their column, and it certainly reflects badly on Obama. But keep in mind a couple of things beyond that. One is that McDonnell ran a great campaign that made him the ideal candidate for Republicans, not just in Virginia, but maybe nationally. He has strong conservative roots – there was never any question that core Republicans would back him – but he ran to the center in the campaign, downplaying his views on social issues and casting himself as a moderate. Deeds, in turn, ran a terrible campaign, virtually handing a victory to McDonnell. He was much too negative for too long, and more importantly, he couldn’t express himself in a way that would inspire confidence. New Jersey. A month ago, it looked like Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine didn’t have a chance. The state’s economy was in a mess economically, corruption was rampant and everybody wanted to be rid of Corzine. Like Deeds, Corzine launched a highly negative campaign against challenger Chris Christie, even making fun of Christie’s weight. But Corzine had an advantage over Deeds – a personal fortune that allowed him to blanket the airwaves with negative ads. The campaign allowed Corzine to draw almost even with Christie, helped by a third party candidate who’s drawing off some of the anti-Corzine vote. Advertisement This election could go either way. A defeat would be a big blow to Obama, who was embraced by Corzine even while Deeds was keeping his distance in Virginia. Plus New Jersey is a Democratic state. Losing both governorships to Republicans would be interpreted as a real problem for the White House, and rightly so. New York’s 23rd Congressional District. This one may have more implications for the future than either of the others. This district in northern New York has been in Republican hands for a century, but it has always been moderate and voted in 2008 for Obama. That’s why the GOP establishment, in a big-tent strategy, nominated moderate Dede Scozzafava. Grassroots conservatives went ballistic and threw their support to Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, a Republican who had been passed over by the GOP hierarchy. The race drew national attention and huge amounts of money, with conservative luminaries like Sarah Palin, Dick Armey, Rush Limbaugh and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a likely 2012 presidential candidate, endorsing Hoffman. Scozzafava fell in the polls and withdrew Saturday, but she threw her support not to Hoffman but to Democrat Bill Owens. It’s anybody’s guess who will win this election. Much will depend on who turns out to vote. Hoffman’s supporters are clearly energized and won’t be kept away, but Scozzafava backers, independents and GOP women who favor abortion rights could tip the contest to Owens. There’s also some resentment about the money and endorsements pouring in from outside the district. It doesn’t help that Hoffman is being accused of being a carpetbagger – he went to high school in the district but currently lives eight miles outside of it. By forcing Scozzafava out, conservatives have already won a big victory, and that will be a scary reminder to other GOP moderate candidates. There’s no question that the so-called “tea party” activists are fed up with what’s been happening in Washington and will be a force to be reckoned with in 2010 and 2012. Advertisement But that’s not all good news for the Republican Party. GOP leaders need to find a way to harness the energy for the party. Right now it’s aimed against all of Washington and the leaders of both parties (although much more so against Democrats). The question remains as to whether nominating conservative candidates everywhere will lead to a bigger, rejuvenated party or a small, not very powerful minority. That brings us back to Virginia and what Bob McDonnell achieved. He has all the conservative credentials to make the tea-party activists happy, but he figured out a way to keep them in the background during the campaign. That could be a winning formula, especially if Democrats don’t produce stronger candidates in 2010 than they did this year in Virginia.