Dateline 2010. People are frustrated with two plus years of economic stagnation. Washington is a fractious place that seems to be ensnared in an endless fight with a broken record of the stale talking points. Democrats had made huge strides in the 2006 and 2008 elections, holding both houses of Congress and the presidency, as well as a majority of governor’s mansions. So the voters pushed out the party in power for their inability to immediately turn around the economy and bring down the unemployment rate, giving the House back to Republicans and returning the GOP to power in the statehouses of some bluish swing states.
Exactly one year later, voters in some key states where Republicans had made gains rejected some of their proposals through statewide referendums, striking not only at the party but at the very reason for electing them — their ideas. If election day 2011 tells us anything, it’s not just that overreaching in this political environment is a bad move, but it’s a spectacularly bad one.
None of last night’s referendum votes were close. In Ohio, the most watched and direct clash between Republican and Democratic forces, the state’s new anti-union law pushed by Gov. John Kasich (R) was defeated by 22 points after both sides spent millions. Kasich himself became the face of the law, called SB 5 while it was going through the legislative process, which stripped many of the collective bargaining rights for public employees, including cops, firefighters and teachers. It subsequently took a bite out of his popularity, as his disapproval rating has hovered well over 50 percent for months.
Yes, it was an overreach. But the lesson seems to be that if voters are concerned about jobs, it’s best not to start directly attacking along the old political lines. Surely Republicans in Ohio wanted to impart the dual message of saving the state money through austerity measures like SB 5 and hitting their political foes as the culprits of the struggling Ohio economy.
There was also a bright spot for conservative forces in Ohio (sort of). Issue 3, a symbolic rejection of the new individual health care mandate coming nationally in 2014, passed with flying colors — nearly two thirds of Ohioans said they wanted out of it. But the measure doesn’t have any teeth, as individual states cannot back out of the mandate. Of course that could change when the courts are finally done weighing in, but a recent ruling didn’t exactly suggest it’s going to. Pro-health reform forces on the union side confirmed to TPM that they didn’t get involved in that fight because it was moot, as the fight on health care will be elsewhere. But it was another example of a proposal that voters don’t necessarily connect with the economy, and the actual vote shows Americans aren’t happy with it.
In Maine there was a similar result on a seemingly political ploy — the legislature, having been completely taken over by Republicans for the first time in decades, pushed through a measure earlier this year that ended same day voter registration. The assumption on their part being the practice favored Democrats in getting people to the polls, and the Republican Party Chair also made other allegations of college students illegally voting in the state. But as of this writing, that tally in Maine is 60 - 40 against ending same day registration. Again, a push for a political advantage not only failed, but this one wasn’t even vaguely about the economy, and it brought on a conversation specifically about electoral tactics.
In Arizona, state Sen. Russell Pearce, the architect behind the strict new Arizona law that allows law enforcement to ask citizens about their immigration status, appears to have lost in a recall election to a fellow Republican who has a less stringent position on the issue. So even within the Republican Party there was evidence that there isn’t an appetite for pushing the most extreme parts of conservative ideology at this moment, certainly if it distracts from the core issue of jobs.
And perhaps the most surprising result of last night on its face is the vote on the “personhood” question in Mississippi, which put the spotlight on abortion in a deeply red state. Yet, the initiative failed by 16 points. But there was also a blatant political effort within the proposal as well — as TPM’s Eric Kleefled wrote, the idea was clearly in conflict with Roe v. Wade, setting up an all but certain constitutional challenge. So Mississippi may have taken the cake by proposing both a politically charged idea along with aiming it at the Supreme Court during an election year.
Election day 2011 said one thing. The keys to government in the midst of a sharp economic decline have focused Americans tightly on jobs and the economy, which pols purport to know. But it seems that some Republicans thought Americans could take a mixture of partisan politics with messaging about jobs. It seems that thesis failed.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.