The 2011 elections: a split decision

November 11, 2011


— The 2011 off-year elections are a warning to Republicans. The 2010 party is over. 2012 will be a struggle.

To be sure, Tuesday was not exactly the Democrats’ night. They did enjoy one big victory, repeal of government-worker reform in Ohio. But elsewhere, they barely held their own. The bigger news was the absence of any major Republican trend. The great Republican resurgence of 2009-10 has slowed to a crawl.

On Tuesday, Ohio was the bellwether. Voters decisively voted down the Republicans’ newly enacted, Wisconsin-like rollback of public-sector workers’ benefits and bargaining rights. True, it took a $30 million union campaign that outspent the other side 3-to-1. True, repeal only returns labor relations to the status quo ante. And true, Ohio Republicans, unlike Wisconsin’s, made a huge tactical error by including police and firefighters in the rollback, opening themselves to a devastating they-saved-my-grandchild ad campaign. Nevertheless, the unions won. And they won big.

And yet in another referendum, that same Ohio electorate rejected the central plank of Obamacare — the individual mandate — by an overwhelming 2-to-1 margin. Never mind that this ballot measure has no practical effect, federal law being supreme. Its political effect is unmistakable. Finally given the chance to vote against Obamacare, swing-state Ohio did so by a 31-point landslide.

Interesting split: Ohio protects traditional union rights, while telling an overreaching Washington to lay off its health care arrangements. Indeed, there were splits everywhere. In this year’s gubernatorial elections, both parties held serve: Democrats retained West Virginia and Kentucky; Republicans retained Louisiana and Mississippi.

This kind of status quo ticket-splitting firmly refutes the lazy conventional narrative of an angry electorate seething with anti-incumbency fervor. In New Jersey, for example, with two races still too close to call, every one of the 65 Assembly incumbents seeking re-election was returned to office.

Even Virginia, which moved to near-complete Republican control, is a cautionary tale. Republicans won six House of Delegates seats, giving them an unprecedented two-thirds majority. However, they had hoped to win outright control of the Senate. They needed three seats. They won only two, one by 86 votes. (Recount to come.)

Not a good night for Virginia Democrats. But compared to the great 2009-10 pendulum swing that obliterated them (in a state Barack Obama carried in 2008), 2011 represents something of a reprieve.

The larger narrative is clear: American politics are, as always, inherently cyclical. Despite the occasional euphoria, nothing lasts. First comes the great Democratic comeback of 2006 and 2008, leading an imprudent James Carville to declare the beginning of a 40-year liberal ascendancy.

He was off by only 38. The fall began almost immediately. Within a year, Democrats were defeated in the off-year elections in Virginia, New Jersey and, most shockingly, Massachusetts, where they lost the sacred “Kennedy seat.”

The slide continued with the Democrats’ 2010 midterm “shellacking,” as Obama called it. With high unemployment, massive discontent — three-fourths of Americans saying we’re on “the wrong track” — and a flailing presidency, Republicans have been flirting with Carvillian straight-line projections. A one-term presidency, exults Michele Bachmann: “The cake is baked.”

Hardly. Tuesday showed that the powerful Republican tailwind of 2010 (I prefer non-culinary metaphors) is now becalmed. Between now and November 2012, things can break either way.

They have already been breaking every which way. In this year’s congressional special elections resulting from the resignation of scandal-embroiled incumbents, New York-26, traditionally conservative, went Democratic; New York-9, forever Democratic, went Republican. Add now the four evenly split gubernatorial races and Ohio’s split decision on its two highly ideological initiatives — and you approach equipoise.

Nothing is written. Contrary to the condescending conventional wisdom, the American electorate is no angry herd, prepared to stampede on the command of today’s most demagogic populist. Mississippi provided an exemplary case of popular sophistication — it defeated a state constitutional amendment declaring that personhood begins at fertilization. Voters were concerned about the measure’s ambiguity (which would grossly empower unelected judges) and its myriad unintended consequences (regarding, for example, infertility treatment and life-threatening ectopic pregnancies). Remarkably, this rejection was carried out by an electorate decidedly pro-life.

And smart. So too across the nation, as we saw Tuesday. This is no disoriented, easily led citizenry. On the contrary. It is thoughtful and discriminating. For Republicans, this means there is no coasting to victory, 9 percent unemployment or not. They need substance. They need an articulate candidate with an agenda and command of the issues who is light on slogans and lighter still on baggage.

Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is letters@charleskrauthammer.com.


Cait McKnelly 6 years, 4 months ago

"States have the power to nullify unconstitutional federal laws."

All states have that right, so what's your point? They still have to take them to Federal court and prove they are unConstitutional by arguing them in front of SCOTUS. They can't just willy nilly declare a Federal law "unConstitutional". They accepted that as a part of their admission to the union. Stop trying to make this out to be a bigger deal than it is.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 4 months ago

The vote against the insurance mandate isn't necessarily a victory for Republicans.

Surveys have shown that a majority of people would prefer a single-payer type universal healthcare system. The insurance mandate came at the behest of the insurance companies who want it in order to lock us into a system that is designed primarily to deliver profits, not healthcare.

Cait McKnelly 6 years, 4 months ago

He doesn't mention the successful recall of Russell Pearce in Arizona, the first time in US history a state Senate president has ever been recalled. Although it wasn't a "Democratic victory" as such, as he was replaced by a more moderate Republican, it's still a clear repudiation of current Republican politics.

beatrice 6 years, 4 months ago

Russell Pearce -- the author of the controversial and unconstitutional (thus far) SB 1070 law and someone many described as the defacto governor. That is a Democratic victory any way you slice it.

beatrice 6 years, 4 months ago

Mississippi voted down the life at conception proposal, which was clearly a Republican social-conservative over reach, and a Democrat won as mayor of Phoenix, the 6th largest city in the country in a "red" state that is home to Republicans John McCain and Jon Kyl.

Just pointing out that it wasn't just one Democratic victory. At this stage, with the economy still struggling, I do think Republicans could possibly win the White House in 2012, but their chances appear slim at best. This is simply because of the candidates running. Their candidates just are not going to be exciting to a national audience. The Republicans are so desperate right now to find a viable candidate who isn't Romney that they are even reconsidering Gingrich at this point! Newt Gingrich! Obviously, Perry is out, Cain is not able, Paul is too cranky, Huntsman is too nice, Bachmann and Santorum are ... well ... Bachmann and Santorum, and Romney simply is not appealing to the Republican base, no matter how much he shifts his views rightward.

In a vote that they probably could win, Republicans will find themselves stuck with the wrong person at the right time -- the Republican version of a John Kerry.

yourworstnightmare 6 years, 4 months ago

If the best spi n that Krauthammer can put on Tuesday's result is a "split decision", then thing must be really bad for the GOP and their agenda.

Succesful recall of Russell Pearce, voting down the anti-union Ohio measure, and voting down a major pro-life ballot measure; compared to a meaningless individual mandate measure being defeated.

That's 3 to 1 by my count. It will be an interesting year, as the GOP try to figure out how to continue to sell to the american people and unpopular bill of goods and continue on over reach.

Pass the popcon! Romney in 2012!

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