Tuesday — Election Day ’07 — was a mixed day for Republicans. It wasn’t the wipe out some anticipated but a clear warning that the Republican brand may be a bit dented and some repair work is still in order.
In Mississippi Haley Barbour handily retained the governorship with 58% of the vote, avoiding the fate of his hapless Louisiana neighbor Democrat Kathleen Blanco whose Katrina mismanagement proved her undoing late last month. With him Republicans swept seven of eight statewide races. With Bobby Jindal’s victory in Louisiana and Barbour’s in Mississippi, Republicans have two effective, reform minded governors and evidence that at least in some parts of the country the GOP brand is not ballot box poison.
In Virginia the tale was considerably less encouraging. Democrats picked up four seats to take the state Senate and picked up four House of Delegates seats, but not control of that body. Most telling in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, the population shift and influx of more liberal voters has turned the region blue resulting in GOP defeats including a 10-point loss by Rep. Tom Davis’ wife,. Jeanmarie Devolites Davis, to a well financed Democratic challenger. In a number of local elections including the race involving the powerful Fairfax County Board of Supervisor Chairman (and possible future Congressional candidate) Gerry Connolly, Republicans came up short despite efforts to focus races on illegal immigration.
Larry J. Sabato notes that although the results could have been worse, the Democratic victory is impressive, “because they had to run under district lines designed by the GOP in 2001 to guarantee their control through 2011. Virginia is not Blue, but it is Purple now. Three straight elections have proven that—2005, 2006, and 2007.” The results bode ill for the GOP in the 2008 Senate race when the successor to retiring incumbent John Warner will be selected. Republicans will have a tough time mounting a credible challenge to popular former Democratic governor Mark Warner.
However, Sabato thinks Virginia may not yet be ripe for Hillary Clinton to pick off, noting that is only likely if “it’s a Democratic landslide nationally” although he allows that “another Democrat might well win the state.”
In Kentucky the incumbent Republican Governor Ernie Flectcher, under a legal and ethical cloud for placing political hires in state jobs, lost as expected by a wide margin. But this race, mainly determined by Fletcher’s legal problems, may not be a sign of a shift in the political winds in the state. The Republican secretary of state and agriculture commissioner held on to other statewide offices.
In a remarkable upset Indiana the Republican challenger Greg Ballard beat incumbent Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson despite being outspent 10 to 1. The Indianapolis Star explained that Ballard “rode a wave of voter discontent over tax increases and crime that not only pushed Peterson out of office, but restored a Republican majority to the City-County Council.”
On propositions, New Jersey voters overwhelmingly rejected a stem cell funding measure (57-43%) as well as a Democratic sponsored measure to shift sales tax money for property tax relief. Utah voters nixed a school voucher proposal and Oregon voters said “no thanks” to a tax increase for healthcare. It seems the public is interested in less government after all.
The northeast shows some promise for Republicans. Pennsylvania local elections in the Philadelphia suburbs proved a pleasant surprise for Republicans who recently have lost ground there. In New Jersey Republicans won the contentious 12th district state senate race, keeping their losses in the state senate to just one seat, and picked up two Assembly seats and wins in three mayoral elections.
So are there lessons for the GOP presidential and senate contenders for 2008? Club for Growth’s Pat Toomey points to GOP results in the Philadelphia suburbs and the New Jersey results as evidence that Democrats have “not made the sale” with voters and lack “vision.” While an anti-incumbent sentiment is still evident, he surmises that it is perhaps lessening as seen by the number of Republicans who were able to hold seats. He also cautions that Republicans do better when “Republicans run as Republicans.”
Looking at the Governors races in Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky Republicans should be clear: competence and ethics matter. Regardless of political affiliation voters have little patience with those who can’t deliver basic services or who cut ethical corners. Republicans would be wise to dump any ethically challenged contenders before the general election.
Immigration is a salient and powerful issue for the GOP base but is not a panacea, especially in areas trending away from Republicans. If Republican want to keep states in the Red fold they will need to run candidates that can pick up independents and who will address issues that suburban voters care about: illegal immigration, healthcare, education, transportation and the environment. Republicans would be foolhardy to adopt big government solutions to issues voters care about (indeed frugality seems back in fashion) but ceding the playing field to Democrats also may be a losing proposition. (For example, Republican presidential contenders who have rolled out market based healthcare proposals seem to be on the right track.)
Fiscal responsibility matters regardless of the merits of a particular program. The results from Tuesday offer no support for those advancing a tax raising and big spending agenda. Republicans in Congress would be wise to hold the line on spending, uphold Presidential vetoes on excessive appropriations and get back their reputations as tightwads.
Finally, Republicans should be forewarned: Democrats are organized, motivated and funded like never before. (The number of Democratic recorded messages, direct mail and paid TV spots in Northern Virginia for a non-gubernatorial, non-presidential year was simply astounding). In past elections Republicans have consoled themselves with the knowledge that they held the advantage with get out the vote and “micro targeting” efforts. If Virginia is any gage, Democrats have more than made up that deficit.
Republicans looking to survive in 2008 would be well advised to look at these results, weed out the weakest of the herd, develop conservative solutions on a full array of issues and get to work on party organization. Otherwise, 2008 may look a whole lot like 2006.