Democrats, Republicans Both Win Key Victories
By Josh Goodman, Staff Writer
Republican Phil Bryant won the Mississippi governorship by a comfortable margin, while Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat, prevailed easily too, winning a second term. The drama in Tuesday's off-year elections was further down the ballot. In a recall election, Arizona voters removed from office Senate President Russell Pearce, a nationally noted anti-immigration crusader and one of the state's most powerful politicians. Meanwhile, Ohio voters overturned a law that would have restricted the bargaining rights of public employees, handing a key victory to the public employee unions that struggled to preserve their benefits in many capitals this year.
The results in Arizona and Ohio gave Democrats and their allies reasons to cheer. But Republicans also won some important victories. The party easily held its majority in the Virginia House of Delegates and also appeared on the cusp of gaining effective control of the Virginia Senate. Democrats held a 22-18 edge in the Senate prior to the election, but, with several races very tight, Republicans were very close to pulling into a 20-20 tie, which would allow Republican Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling to cast tie-breaking votes. Republicans also gained legislative seats in Mississippi and were close to winning a majority in the Mississippi House, where Democrats previously had the edge.
Taken together, the results didn't provide a clear message from voters about what sort of policies they want or whom they're likely to prefer in 2012. That unclear message was, in part, a natural consequence of the limited election slate, in which any single result could be written off as the product of local circumstances, not grand judgments. Mississippi and Kentucky were the only states to hold gubernatorial elections, while only Mississippi, Virginia and New Jersey held regularly scheduled elections for the state legislature.
The muddled result, though, may be a real reflection of an electorate that lacks a clear preference for any single party right now. Nationally, President Obama's approval rating has consistently stayed below 50 percent for months, yet he still leads all his Republican rivals in many polls. Voters broadly disapprove of both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. In that context, it may not be surprising that in state contests voters didn't give Democrats the sorts of clear victories they won in 2006 and 2008 or Republicans the same triumphs they enjoyed in 2009 and 2010.
Democrats' most convincing victory was in Kentucky, while Republicans scored major wins in Mississippi. In Kentucky, Beshear easily defeated his Republican challenger, Senate President David Williams. Beshear won despite an unemployment rate near 10 percent in the state and despite running among an electorate that has been reliably Republican in recent federal elections. In the campaign, Beshear emphasized his fiscal management, saying he'd balanced the budget without raising taxes. Democrats also prevailed in Kentucky for attorney general, secretary of state, auditor and treasurer. Republicans' lone statewide victory was in the race for agriculture commissioner.
In Mississippi, the results were almost a mirror image of Kentucky's, with Republicans winning all but one statewide race-only Jim Hood, the incumbent Democratic attorney general, prevailed. With Republican Governor Haley Barbour term-limited, Bryant, his lieutenant governor, easily ascended to the top job. Bryant ran as both a fiscal and social conservative, but also touted his record on good government issues, such as ethics reform and government transparency. He beat Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, the Democratic candidate, who was also Mississippi's first black major party gubernatorial nominee in modern history. With a few races for the Mississippi House still too close to call as of this morning, it wasn't clear whether Bryant would be working with a Republican-held legislature. Republicans are optimistic they'll end up with a majority in the House for the first time since Reconstruction.
New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, will still grapple with Democratic legislative majorities, after the party retained its edge in both the state Senate and Assembly. Under Christie, divided government has resulted in fierce partisan conflict, but also some notable compromises, including major changes to public employee retirement benefits approved earlier this year. The status quo also will prevail in Iowa, where Democrats held onto a state Senate seat in a special election, meaning they'll keep their 26-24 edge.
Votes for caution
Despite the mixed results, one clear theme did seem to emerge: Voters rejected dramatic changes in policy. That was the case in Ohio, where voters weren't just overturning SB 5, the anti-collective bargaining law which had prompted mass protests at the Columbus capitol. They were also approving a measure to oppose mandates that everyone have health insurance, a clear rebuke to President Obama's sweeping health care bill.
The same sentiments prevailed in Maine, where voters overturned a law that had ended same-day voter registration-restoring a practice that had existed since 1973. And they prevailed in Mississippi, where a measure to define life as beginning at conception-thereby setting up a challenge to Roe v. Wade -also failed. Mississippi voters passed a measure to require voters to show ID at the polls.
Pearce, the Arizona Senate president, was a force behind many ambitious policies that have taken Arizona in a more conservative direction over the last two years. He's best known as the author of SB 1070, the law designed to be the nation's toughest crackdown on illegal immigration, which prompted a national debate when it passed in 2010. He conceded defeat not to a Democrat, but to a fellow Republican who pledged a more conciliatory style. Pearce wasn't the only legislative recall: Michigan voters removed State Representative Paul Scott, a Republican who chaired the House Education Committee. Teachers unions had pushed for his ouster.
Meanwhile, one of closest races-and one of the most consequential-was in Virginia's 17th Senate district. Republican challenger Bryce Reeves led Democratic incumbent Edd Houck by 86 votes, with all precincts reporting, a result that, if it stands, would deadlock the Senate at 20-20.
Lately, Virginia has been a political microcosm of the country. It swung to Democrats in 2006, 2007 and 2008, then back to Republicans in 2009 and 2010. A tie in 2011 could be said to reflect the national balance of power between the parties right now, and, perhaps, foreshadow a very competitive year of politics ahead.