Off year elections are sometimes a weathervane that gives us some idea from where the political winds are blowing. What can we learn from the November 8, 2011 elections around the nation?
On the one hand Conservatives and Republicans had numerous setbacks.
In Maine voters rejected a law that was passed by Republicans in the legislature that would have ended same-day voter registration, a practice Democrats say is important to increase voting participation.
In Mississippi, one of the most conservative states in the union, voters rejected an anti-abortion constitutional amendment that would have outlawed all abortions and many forms of contraception. Initiative 26, the “personhood law”, would have amended the state Constitution to define life “to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” In addition to opposition from Democrats and moderate Independents Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the American Civil Liberties Union opposed the measure. These are some of the most liberal groups in the nation so it’s astonishing they scored a victory here.
In Ohio voters handed Republican Gov. John Kasich a serious setback when they defeated his effort to weaken collective bargaining for public employees. The landslide vote to repeal the bill — 62 percent to 38 percent – perhaps can be seen as a sharp defeat for all Republican governors who saw limiting unions as a tool for cutting costs.
Remember that Ohio is also a crucial state in the November 2012 presidential contest, and this victory suggests that labor unions and moderates (or even liberals) may have recovered some lost momentum. That could be good news for President Obama who will face a tight reelection.
In Iowa, Republicans failed in their attempt to win control of the State Senate in a much-watched election to fill a seat held by a Democrat. Democratic candidate Liz Mathis scored a decisive victory with 56 percent of the vote against her opponent Cindy Golding. Had they succeeded in breaking the Democrats 26-24 control of the Senate it would have allowed Republicans to pass measures such as a ban on same sex marriage. Clearly the Tea party has some ‘splainin to do on this loss.
By the way, the race cost one million dollars making it the most expensive ever in Iowa and underscoring the intensity of interest in the highly divisive issue of family, gay rights, and other hot-button issues.
In Arizona, which has led the nation in conservative initiatives especially on immigration according to the Arizona Republic:
“Russell Pearce, one of the most influential state politicians in the nation and a powerful voice on illegal immigration, was on the verge of losing his Senate seat in Tuesday's unprecedented recall election. Pearce appeared resigned to defeat, saying, "if being recalled is the price for keeping one's promises, so be it." Pearce would be the first sitting state Senate president in the nation and “ … the first Arizona legislator ever to lose a recall election. He would be required to step down immediately once the results become official.”
Republican Jerry Lewis would replace Pearce is white, conservative and a Mormon. The difference is that “ … his vision of leadership is to bring all sides together to find solutions, rather than ruling by fiat.”
One of the strange dirty tricks of the campaign involved a Mexican immigrant Olivia Cortes. Pearce supporters admitted helping to get Cortes on the ballot in the hopes of draining Hispanic votes away from Lewis. Cortes only got 250 out of some 20,000 votes.
It wasn't all bad news for conservatives and Republicans.
In Mississippi voters approved a law that will require some from of government-approved identification. This law was opposed by Democrats because it was seen as an effort to intimidate voters of color who often have a hard time obtaining such documents.
In Ohio voters approved a mostly symbolic measure to exempt Ohio residents from the individual mandate required by the Obama administration’s health care law.
Republicans in Virginia tried to take over the state Senate and achieve a tie of 20-20. That would give the Lt Governor, a Republican, the tie-breaking vote and give the green light to many conservative initiatives the Governor has been pushing. The results were still not certain when I wrote this column. In the House of Delegates Republicans increased their majority to 66 seats to the Democrats' 32. If the Republicans win the Senate they will control all branches of government for only the second time since the Civil War.
Voters around the country are restless and that neither party has a firm grip on the political agenda. There were just as many GOP and conservative victories as defeats and many incumbents of both parties won easy reelection.
That means, as we expected, that the 2012 election is anybody’s guess and the field is open for either party to make gains. Much will depend on who the choice at the top of the ticket is on the Republican side. This year I do think that the Presidential candidate could have coattails.
And, all eyes will be on the Iowa caucuses more than ever and the hope is that the circus of Herman Cain’s sexual harassment problems will soon yield to more substantive debate.
Steffen W. Schmidt, University Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Iowa State University, WNYC blogger, and chief Political correspondent of Insider Iowa.