What we learned from Tuesday’s elections


Did we learn anything from [Tuesday’s] elections, or are we just having one happy day after a good night? dan.burn’s post last night and the attached comments have the many good results, and I suspect a few got missed in there. Are there any broader lessons?

The highest profile race was the repeal of SB5, the new Ohio law that essentially outlaws public unions. Ohio US Sen. Sherrod Brown pointed out something that sounds rather significant — this was the first statewide vote on the right to organize:

Brown’s interpretation is worth dwelling on at some length, because it suggests a very clear path forward for Democrats heading into 2012.

Brown started out by making a historical point that invests the results with newfound significance: “This was the first time in our nation’s history there was a statewide vote on bargaining rights.”

Brown noted that yesterday’s results, when viewed in a historical context, reveal that the middle class didn’t grow organically – and that it doesn’t have organic staying power, either.

“If you pay attention to history, you know that collective bargaining is perhaps the single biggest reason we have a strong middle class in this country,” he said. “It has provided a path to the middle class for hundreds of thousands of workers.”

“The middle class doesn’t happen on its own – and it doesn’t unravel on its own, either,” he said. “Last night Ohio took a very big step towards rebuilding the middle class.”

Brown also argue[sic] that the public is wising up to the fact that the financial crisis and the actors who helped create it – and not public workers – are the ones to blame for our fiscal travails. In a reference to the economic meltdown of 2008, Brown said: “Budget deficits came from that, not from the salaries and the benefits that our public workers earned.”

Organized labor has been under withering assault, and in decline, for as long as most of us have been alive. My own suspicion is the attack on public workers has nothing to do with who they work for, but merely with being the next target in the campaign to prohibit labor unions. We have the recall in Wisconsin to go along with Ohio and show that Republicans have gone too far, that there is a base of support, and that asserting the right to organize is good politics. Sherrod seems to be saying Democrats should run on protecting the right to organize as a foundation of the middle class, and to be sure, before unions, there was no such thing as a blue-collar middle class.

Republicans are trying to spin Ohio as a neutral night because the amendment to ban the federal health insurance mandate passed easily, but that’s always been the most unpopular part of health care reform. In fact, it might be the only unpopular part. Conservatives were looking at anything that might stop reform, but many liberals support a single-payer system, and realize that if the mandate fails, then private insurance becomes untenable without reinstating discrimination against pre-existing conditions, which is also deeply unpopular. In other words, lots of lefties would have voted against the mandate too (I’d give up the mandate if it meant the end of the private system rather than the reinstatment of pre-reform insurance, but without that assurance, it’s a bad risk). So sorry GOP, no significance there.

Anti-abortion activists are going to keep trying personhood amendments, which is no surprise since previous heavy defeats haven’t deterred them, but failing so heavily in so bible belt a state as Mississippi shows they’ve gone too far. It seems the significance is to set the parameters of the debate, since even many people who regard themselves as pro-life are open to exceptions, and are unwilling to abolish contraception, in-vitro fertilization, and stem cell research.

Here’s one other point on this referendum: it wasn’t the Democratic Party’s massive turnout operation that won this. There isn’t much Democratic Party. Not only was the gubernatorial candidate blown out, but three of eight statewide races weren’t even contested.

Republicans must be happy the photo ID constitutional amendment passed, but together with the result in the Maine repeal of the law abolishing election day registration, I think I see something here, and I don’t just mean the actual percentages. Photo ID won big, but still by a smaller than expected margin, while reestablishing election day registration won big when it had just a narrow lead, but that’s just the trend of this one election. What might be immediately important for Minnesota is that Maine had election day registration almost as long as we have (we went first, from back in the days when we actually innovated instead of copying conservative ideology) and despite the Maine Republicans taking the first chance they had to abolish it, it’s very popular. In Minnesota, I’ve run into people who didn’t even know they could register outside the polls, so that’s how ingrained it is. While a photo ID requirement is popular, what if it meant the end of election day registration? The scheme proposed by the MNGOP last session would have IDs scanned by a scanner connected to a central registration database — which makes election day registration impossible. Will photo ID be so popular if it means the end of being able to register at the polls? I’m pretty sure not. I see some hope we can actually beat this thing.

By the way, Maine Republicans tried turning election day registration into an anti-gay campaign, including this newspaper ad and a mailer, and can we presume conservative talk radio repeated it too? Just a year after the gay marriage ban was reinstated by referendum, the homophobic appeal failed. That’s always good news.

Since there’s a clear theme in these referenda of attacks on the rights of people who tend not to vote Republican, let’s look at one more I hope indicates a backlash. Arizona state senator Russell Pearce, who sponsored the anti-immigrant law known as SB1070 and became Senate president for it, was successfully recalled. He was replaced by another Republican, and he had other problems that might have put the recall over the top, but this was backlash for saying anyone could be stopped and made to show their papers because someone in law enforcement took a notion. Maybe this isn’t such a good issue for Republicans. Maybe it is a good issue for us.

Maybe Republicans should stop sticking their names in the blank for “Author” on bills from ALEC.

UPDATE: One more thought: I’ve long harbored a pet theory that the conservative era that dominated US politics for 30 years started with Proposition 13 in California that essentially outlawed tax increases. A state that once had the country’s best public schools is now near the bottom, a wealthy state is now in perpetual budget crisis, and at least one city closed all public libraries because they’re broke and can’t raise taxes. Will SB5 turn out to be the left’s Proposition 13? It stopped something bad instead of establishing something good, but it was still such a big fight over basic rights, one that hadn’t been fought in an entire state before, that it might have changed the national agenda and reenergized labor and its allies.

Update: one more thought