Q & A

Chris Swope: Covering the 2011 and 2012 Elections

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Chris Swope, Editor, Stateline

  Chris Swope
November 15, 2011 — Voters in a number of states went to the polls last week for the final round of state elections before the busy 2012 season. Stateline, the daily news service of the Pew Center on the States, followed the key races throughout the fall right up through election night.

Christopher Swope, Stateline’s editor, discusses the results and how Stateline covers elections.

Q: What were the major races Stateline was watching last week?

A: The most interesting races weren’t the ones for governor. In state legislatures, Republicans made gains in Virginia and Mississippi. But Democrats kept control of the Iowa Senate by winning a race for an open Senate seat. And in Arizona, voters recalled Russell Pearce, the Republican president of the state Senate, who has been a controversial figure in the immigration debate.

There also were some interesting ballot measures. In Ohio, voters rejected the collective bargaining law passed earlier this year. And in Mississippi, voters said no to a measure that would have defined life at conception. But there were some other intriguing measures that got less national attention, like expanding gambling in Maine and New Jersey. Maine voters said no to new casinos but New Jersey voters said they’d like to start sports gambling, if the federal government would allow it.

Q: Big picture, what do these results mean?

A: In some ways, Republicans kept up the momentum from last year’s elections. In 2010, they took control of 20 state legislative chambers. In Mississippi, they’ve added one chamber with the House and another with the Virginia Senate. This continues a general movement toward Republican control of legislatures in the South that started in the early 1990s and has continued ever since.

But Democrats also can point to good news. In Kentucky, Steve Beshear, the incumbent governor, won reelection easily, despite the state’s high unemployment rate. Democrats also won most of the other statewide races there.

There were a few other governors’ races this year, in Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia. But there weren’t any big surprises or shifts in party control. Although there is one new face among the nation’s governors: Phil Bryant will take over from Haley Barbour as governor of Mississippi. Barbour was term-limited.

Q: What do the results say about what to expect in 2012?

It’s always best to be careful about reading too much into off-year elections because turnout is usually pretty low. One thing for sure is that while most of the national attention in 2012 will be on the presidential race, there will be a lot of action going on at the state level, too. There are 11 elections for governor next year, and for thousands of seats in state legislatures.

Also, some of this year’s ballot measures may foreshadow debates we’ll be seeing in states in 2012. The abortion-related initiative that Mississippi voted down is one that its supporters hope to put before voters in California, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and other states next year.

Q: How does Stateline cover state elections?

A: One of the challenges in writing for a national audience of state policy makers is the old saying that all politics is local—a reader in Florida may not care too much about a state issue in Texas. We also don’t cover politics as a horse race.

So what we try to do is understand the issues a state is wrestling with, and find a national narrative to plug that discussion into. For example, Colorado voted on the question of whether to raise sales and income taxes. We wrote about it as a possible test of voters’ willingness to raise taxes in the current economic environment. It also spoke to the budget cuts states have been making in education lately, because the extra revenue was to go toward education if the measure passed. It didn’t pass.

Q: What’s the most interesting state election that fell under the national radar?

A: Texas voted on 10 ballot measures this year. One that we wrote about had to do with changing the rules around the administration of a $25 billion trust fund the state has set up for education. Texas made big cuts in education spending this year. The Republican legislator who got the measure on the ballot is of the mind that if you have all this money set aside for education, now is the time Texas should use some of it. Others worried that if you do that, you begin to erode a resource that would be hard to build back up again.

We used the Texas debate as an excuse to look at the obscure world of these trust funds that many states have set up for education—funds that draw their income from an arrangement that goes back to the granting of statehood. It’s pretty fascinating stuff. The Texas measure passed, but just barely.

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November 15, 2011