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 three to one. 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 two-to-one 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 reelection 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.”