It is too early to tell if the trip to the woodshed congressional Republicans suffered earlier this month will have any real effect on their core principles going forward. While dozens of postmortems in the past few weeks have noted the years of corruption, earmarks, and pork-barrel spending as emblematic of Republicans cast adrift from their conservative traditions, nothing better encapsulates the meltdown of GOP values than their capitulation on the issue of affirmative action. And nothing proves this point better than the position most of Michigan’s GOP candidates and elected officials took regarding the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) — the recent ballot initiative that eliminated race-based affirmative action in public education, employment, and contracting.
Fearful of driving large numbers of minorities to the polls, the Michigan GOP establishment believed it could mitigate high turnout by opposing MCRI. But on Election Day, Republican candidates who opposed the MCRI wound up with nothing to show for their pandering — they lost by wide margins, while MCRI passed with 58 percent of the vote.
This is an old story. For years Republican political mavens from California to Texas to Florida have argued that initiatives like MCRI — although principled endeavors — hurt GOP candidates because they energize blacks and Hispanics to turnout at the polls in heavy numbers, causing Republican candidates to suffer. No one has heard this line of reasoning more often than Ward Connerly, the national leader of the effort to end racial preferences by citizen initiative. In every state that Connerly has attempted to organize an anti–racial preference referendum, local GOP leaders have publicly condemned his efforts as “divisive,” while privately telling him they agree with his goals.
Well, the Michigan MCRI vote provides us with a laboratory to test the Republican mavens’ turnout theory. And guess what? Their political calculus was wrong. In fact, it backfired.
A Tale of Two Who Lost
The two most prominent Republican losers in Michigan were gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos, who sought to unseat Jennifer Granholm, and Michael Bouchard, running to replace Debbie Stabenow in the U.S. Senate. Both DeVos and Bouchard, along with the leaders of the state Republican party, opposed MCRI. However, Republican Mike Cox, running for reelection as attorney general, was a vocal supporter, having thrown his support behind it nearly three years ago when the proposal was being organized. Cox beat his Democrat challenger with 54 percent of the vote, while DeVos and Bouchard lost by wide margins.
Of course, this is not to argue that if DeVos and Bouchard had backed MCRI they would have won. After all, Cox’s incumbency and popularity played a role in his reelection. But the big lesson for Republicans in the future is that Cox’s principled support for MCRI didn’t hurt his candidacy and probably helped overall.
Michigan-based research consultant Chet Zarko has just completed an insightful snapshot election analysis of a few jurisdictions that proves this last point. Zarko looked at voter turnout and election results in three counties: ultra-Democratic Wayne County; ultra-Republican Ottawa County; and Oakland County, a bell-weather swing-county. Zarko notes that turnout was up in all three counties — as it was throughout the state — but concludes that MCRI had nothing to do with it.
Comparing this election with the midterm election in 2002, raw voter turnout of was up 12.1 percent in Wayne; 23.9 percent in Ottawa; and 16.0 percent in Oakland. But it’s interesting to note how the top-of-the-ticket candidates — governor and senator, for example — performed in each county and compare that with voter support for MCRI. For Wayne County, support for top-of-the-ticket Democratic candidates rose from 67.8 percent in 2002 to 71.5 percent in 2006. In Ottawa County, GOP top-of-the-ticket percentages fell from 71.2 percent in 2002 to 65.1 percent in 2006. In Oakland County, the top-of-the-ticket GOP percentages fell from 48.3 percent in 2002 to 44.6 percent. Interestingly, though, the MCRI fared much better than most Republican candidates. In Wayne County, DeVos and Bouchard each lost by over 45 points each, while MCRI lost by only 18 points. In conservative Ottawa County, DeVos and Bouchard won with about 65 percent of all votes, while MCRI won with nearly 70 percent.
Oakland County provides the very best example to test the minority turnout theory of the GOP political elite. In Oakland’s heavily black township of Royal Oak, 33.3 percent of eligible voters voted in 2002, while 41.0 percent did in 2006 — an increase of nearly 8.0 percent, but significantly below the county’s overall increase of 16.0 percent. Even in the county’s more multi-racial city of Pontiac, where blacks and Hispanics are over 60 percent of the population, 2006 turnout was up less than five points. As Zarko points out, these percentages are contrary to the dominant pre-election theory that MCRI would only increase turnout in heavily Democratic areas with significant minority populations.
In 2008, Ward Connerly may turn his sights to more states, targeting Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Missouri, or South Dakota. If he does, Republican candidates there should remember the lessons of Michigan — standing up for colorblind equal opportunity is not only the honorable and moral policy, it is also a help at the polls.
– Edward Blum is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.