WASHINGTON — 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, all but one of the 65 Assembly incumbents seeking re-election were 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 and will have to rely on the tie-breaking lieutenant governor’s vote.
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 was more rebuke than rejection.
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.
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