Lessons From the 2011 Elections

In case you didn’t notice (and many of you may live in jurisdictions where you wouldn’t), there were elections last night–for municipalities in New York; for State legislatures in New Jersey, Virginia, Kentucky and Mississippi; for referendums in Ohio; and special elections in Iowa and Arizona.  Kentucky and Mississippi both had gubernatorial elections.  There were a few upsets; outside of Virginia, the good news was generally for the Democrats.  The Liberal Ironist would like to read the tea leaves coming out of a quiet but portentious odd-year election.

Voters Aren’t Letting (Republican) Bullies Get Their Way

Scott Walker, John Kasich and Chris Christie have all received pointed messages in the past few months.  All 3 Governors have gone on the attack against public employee unions: In Wisconsin Governor Walker passed a bill restricting State public employee unions from being able to collectively bargain for anything more than cost-of-living adjustments to their income; in Ohio Governor Kasich passed an even more-radical elimination of public employee unions’ collective bargaining power, restricting collective bargaining solely to salaries, workplace conditions and hours and requiring State employees to contribute at least 10% of their salaries to their pensions and at least 15% of their salaries to their health benefits.  And in New Jersey, Governor Christie–who had to face-down a recently-enlarged Democratic majority in the State Legislature to do this–managed to require State employees to contribute larger shares of their salaries to their pension and health benefits.  From late last winter through this summer, these measures were taken as a harbinger of public employee unions on the defensive, just another chapter in the long decline of union power and protections in the United States.  Since August, however, they look more like episodes of Republican hubris, their relatively favorable circumstances notwithstanding.

Back in early-August Wisconsin Republicans barely preserved their majority in the State Senate, 17-16, following recall elections for 6 Republican Senate seats.  (Democrats won 2 of the 6 contests, reducing a 19-14 Republican Senate majority but suffering visible demoralization in the process.)  This was taken by many Republicans and pundits as evidence of the party’s resilience, even as a sign that Governor Walker didn’t have to worry about his impending recall next year.  This conclusion is premature at best; only State Senators who have been in office for at least 1 year are eligible for recall under Wisconsin law; this means the 6 Republican State Senators on the ballot for recall in August won elections in 2008, the year in which Senator Barack Obama beat Senator John McCain for the Presidency by a large margin in Wisconsin.  In other words, 2 out of 6 Wisconsin State Senate districts that voted Republican in their low-ebb year of 2008 voted for Democrats in response to Governor Walker’s crackdown on collective bargaining rights in that State.  Scott Walker only won the Governorship in Wisconsin a year ago by 52.3%-46.5%–not a squeaker, but still a competitive race and not a margin that should have suggested to Walker that he had a very-elastic mandate.  Progressivism has deep roots in Wisconsin in spite of some of its noteworthy Conservatives–Governor Walker himself, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan…uh, and late Senator Joe McCarthy.  Wisconsin Republicans’ somewhat-surprising maintenance of their State Senate majority has give Governor Walker a reprieve of about half a year.  Prudence would suggest he should use that time to mend fences and build a record of pragmatic problem-solving and championing of causes partial to Liberals; if he continues to govern from the right in this political environment the Liberal Ironist expects him to be removed from office–along with a few more Republican State Senators–early next year.  I frankly doubt he will show the political sense required to make that change.

Governor Kasich in Ohio was dealt a rather serious blow last night.  Much more-obviously than Governor Walker in Wisconsin, he has awakened a “sleeping giant” in the public employees unions.  Though not all precincts have reported in as of the most-recent available reports, the early lead for the referendum vote to repeal Ohio’s anti-collective-bargaining measure was 62%-38%.  A defeat by such a margin is large-enough to call many Ohio Republicans’ 2012 election prospects into question.  Unless both the Governor and majorities in both chambers of the Ohio Legislature are politically-suicidal, this measure is effectively dead.  Actually, Governor Kasich may be a lame duck already and politically-dead in the long-term anyway.  Ohio doesn’t have a recall law (just as Wisconsin doesn’t allow new State laws to be put to the vote by petition), but the State Legislature comes up for re-election in 2012, and Governor Kasich (who won’t face re-election until 2014) is polling in the low-’30s, making him one of the least-popular Governors in the country.  Both the $30 million raised to defeat this measure (something Conservatives who favor private financing of elections have to respect, ironically) and the margin by which the measure was defeated (customarily a defeat by 60% or greater is considered a landslide) ought to lead the Ohio Governor and his large Republican legislative majority a few moments of introspection.  They have misread the character of the State they’re governing, and even moreso than Republicans in Wisconsin, they need to consider the way their policies could impact Republicans’ electoral prospects in 2012, when Ohio will wield 118 Electoral votes and have possibly-decisive say in choosing the President.  “If you don’t win and the people speak . . . you have to pay attention to what they’re saying,”  Governor Kasich said in response to this well-earned political embarrassment.  It sounds like the wheels are already turning in his head; unlike Walker he has 3 years to reinvent his administration.

Governor Chris Christie is known as a hard-charging, even bellicose reformer, but he has also at times spoken circumspectly on account of his State’s Democratic legislative majority.  That majority actually grew slightly in 2009, the year of his upset win over Democratic Governor Jon Corzine.  Though he had surprising success in prevailing over a fairly-Liberal Democratic State Legislature in achieving restrictions on public employees’ salaries and benefits, these policy achievements have done nothing to help him build his party in New Jersey.  Last night this much was proven as Republicans actually lost 1 seat each in the State Assembly and the State Senate, bringing the Democratic margin of control in those chambers to 48-32 and 25-15, respectively.  While his personal polling (in the mid-40s) isn’t necessarily indicative of trouble if he manages to stay on-message and attract business to the State without alienating the State’s many Liberals, that and Christie’s political disappointment last night nonetheless should be instructive: If the Governor of New Jersey was under any illusion that he was regarded as a hard-charging reformer who needed help to clear-out all the cobwebs in State government, many parts of the State clearly don’t agree at all.  2 years in, New Jersey voters seem satisfied that Christie is done “right-sizing” the State.

A ballot measure in Mississippi called the “Personhood Amendment,” which would have declared a fetus a human being (thus making all forms of abortion and certain forms of contraception murder under Mississippi law), was defeated 58%-42%.  One of the most-Conservative States in the country defeated a pro-life constitutional by referendum because the public considered it extremist.  I should immediately give the twist: The State Legislature in Mississippi is controlled by Democrats.  Democrats hold a large 72-50 majority in the State House and a minimal 26-25 majority in the State Senate.  Outgoing Republican Governor Haley Barbour (who once spoke wistfully of Segregation, making a complete fool of himself) also supported the legislation; still, in what may have been a frenetic attempt to save themselves from a nationwide Conservative trend in last night’s elections, many Democratic legisators in Mississippi voted for a law that would classify a woman who went through with an abortion or late-stage contraception–for any reason including rape or endangerment–as a 1st-degree murderer.

A special election to replace a Democratic State Senator appointed by the Republican Governor to a State office has resulted in a Democrat retaining that seat.  Republicans made a push to take this seat, as it would leave them just 1 vote shy of taking a voting plurality in the State Senate, which would allow them to overturn Iowa’s court-mandated sanction of same-sex marriage through legislation.  Though the district in question doesn’t necessarily have the Republican proclivities they were looking for, this result outside of the normal election cycle (meaning insurgent Republicans had a better-than-usual opportunity to turn social Conservatives out and achieve an upset) raises questions about the rallying power of the cause of fighting same-sex marriage rights already instituted.

Finally, a recall election in Arizona seems to have unseated Russell Pearce, President of the State Senate, an Republican ally of Governor Jan Brewer and the author of that State’s controversial law requiring police to check the immigration status of anyone they detain whom they suspect is in the country illegally.  (This provision was overturned by a Federal Court and will soon be before the Supreme Court.)  Preliminary results show Pearce losing to a Republican challenger who accused the Arizona Senate leader of damaging the State’s reputation and pursuing a divisive policy when it should be working on comprehensive immigration reform with the Federal Government.

Discouraging Results Elsewhere Aside, the Republican Party is Doing Fine Where It Hasn’t Had the Chance to Embarrass Itself

Last night wasn’t entirely discouraging for Republicans.  They did very well for themselves in Virginia, suggesting that that State’s flirtation with the Democratic Party may have ended in a bad break-up.  Republicans have converted their 59-39-2 majority in the House of Delegates and 18-22 minority in the Senate of Virginia to a 67-32-1 majority in the House of Delegates and a 20-20 plurality in the Senate of Virginia, with the Lieutenant Governor able to break tie votes in the Senate.  This is a big win for social Conservatives, who count Governor Bob McDonnell as 1 of their own, and whose representatives among Republicans in the legislature intend to carry much of the legislation recently-proposed in the House through the Senate.

The Republican candidate for Governor, current Lieutenant-Governor Phil Bryant, has replaced Haley Barbour in Mississippi, defeating Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree, who would have been the State’s 1st black governor.  Republicans picked up 4 seats in the State House–though they are still far from controlling that chamber.  As Democrats still control the lower house of the State Legislature, Republican power is limited, thus preventing what could be provocative flattery of the party’s traditional interest groups.  If Republicans had been solely-responsible for the bizarre and cruel “Personhood Amendment,” the proposed law probably would have received more publicity, allowing Democrats to rally money and voters and possibly even treat Mississippi as a “counterattack State” as Wisconsin and Ohio have become.

Republicans had big wins on some ballot initiatives last night.  In Ohio, voters that overwhelmingly junked Governor Kasich’s restrictions on union rights also voted by a large margin against the individual mandate to buy health insurance in President Obama’s March 2010 Health Care Reform.  In Mississippi, while voters defeated the “Personhood Amendment” by a large margin they also supported a law requiring voters to present photo IDs at polling stations, a measure widely suspected by Democrats as a means of discouraging possibly-unprepared students, immigrants, and poorer citizens from voting.

Far from representing a simple victory for Liberals and social justice, the 2011 elections provided a warning for Republicans whose policies are too radical–and a strategy for Democrats to win elections in places that now seem like foreign terrain for the party.

Democrats Are Winning by Tailoring Their Traditional Message Based on a Broad, Popular Constituency…and by Contrasting Themselves with the President

Democrats aren’t just winning in base States like New Jersey or staging comebacks in Rust Belt States with contracting cities like Ohio and Wisconsin; they are also winning elections in places with which they cannot be conventionally associated.  Democratic Governor Steve Beshear just won re-election easily, Democrats picked up a seat in the State House, and the only statewide elected office held by a Republican (and there are many statewide elected offices in Kentucky) is that of the Agriculture Commissioner.  Democrats also picked up a seat in the State Senate, which they already control.  Democrats did well for themselves here last night, but they did it by contrasting themselves with President Obama.  This worked well for Governor Joe Manchin III when he ran for the US Senate in 2010, and for Earl Ray Tomblin when he ran to succeed him as Governor of that very-Democratic yet very-Conservative State.  Democrats continue to do well in States like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi when they are able to champion local issues that…clash directly with the Democratic Party’s national agenda.  When Joe Manchin ran for the Senate in 2010, he ran an ad in which he literally shot a copy of President Obama’s proposed cap-and-trade emissions control legislation with a rifle, “because it’s bad for West Virginia.”

In summary, Democrats do seem to have found a way out of their disastrous 2010 low point–but that way forward so far seems to consist in taking up popular causes that harmonize with their traditional narrative of government power applied in the public interest.  This means candidates are often better-off talking local issues and sporting a very-contextual track record, and in some places casting “Washington” or even President Obama as the heavy.

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One thought on “Lessons From the 2011 Elections

  1. Pingback: It’s Going to be Romney | The Liberal Ironist

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