Politics & Policy

Off-Year Politics Is Local

It’s safe to say that liberals fared a bit better than conservatives in the mishmash of Tuesday’s elections: They turned back an important school-choice measure in Utah and applauded Democratic victories in the Kentucky gubernatorial race and the Virginia legislature. Pundits who search for a national meaning in these results, however, will search in vain, because local issues and factors dominated.

What was probably the most significant — and disappointing — outcome involved school choice in Utah, which more than 60 percent of voters rejected on Tuesday. School-choice ballot initiatives have a long record of poor performance — just like many public schools, it might be said. Reformers had hoped that conservative Utah would prove different. Voters were asked to endorse a plan that their state legislature had narrowly adopted earlier this year, giving financial support to families that choose private schools for their children. The teacher unions poured money into the state — by one estimate, the National Education Association spent $1 for every teacher in the United States to defeat school choice in Utah. This effort crushed a local movement. The ultimate victims are kids who remain trapped in government-run schools, not just in Utah but in other states that might have found inspiration in Utah’s example, had it actually set one.

In Kentucky, Democrat Steve Beshear ousted Republican governor Ernie Fletcher, 59 percent to 41 percent. The election turned on a controversy involving Fletcher, civil-service rules, and the hiring of political allies. Democrats may think this will give them momentum going into next year, when Republican senator Mitch McConnell is up for reelection. But if there’s a lesson here, it’s that incumbents should avoid indictments.

By winning in Kentucky, Democrats make up for a loss last month in Louisiana, where Republican congressman Bobby Jindal was elected governor by a wide margin. His first term will now coincide with next-door neighbor Haley Barbour’s second — Mississippi voters returned the Republican governor to office, 58 percent to 42 percent. Barbour is widely credited with a strong response to Hurricane Katrina. Although the storm damaged the credibility of the Bush administration, it is interesting to note that voters in the two states most affected by it have opted for Republican governance.

In Virginia, Democrats gained control of the state senate, thanks to a strong showing in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. One of the Republican casualties was Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, the wife of Rep. Tom Davis. Although the congressman probably remains safe in his seat for the time being, his region is clearly trending toward the Democrats. This resurgence fueled Jim Webb’s defeat of George Allen in last year’s Senate contest, and it may propel former Democratic governor Mark Warner as he runs for the Senate in 2008. A small bright spot for conservatives could come from exurban Prince William County, where GOP board chairman Corey A. Stewart campaigned on illegal immigration and was reelected, despite a well-funded effort by Democrats to beat him.

In Ohio’s fifth congressional district, voters began the process of selecting a successor to Republican congressman Paul Gillmor, who died in September. At press time, Robert Latta, the son of a former congressman, appears to have edged Steve Buehrer, the Club for Growth’s preferred candidate, in the GOP primary. The winner will be favored against Democratic nominee Robin Weirauch in a special election on December 11.

Pro-lifers can take comfort from a result in New Jersey, where 53 percent of voters rejected a state plan to borrow $450 million for the funding of stem-cell research that involves the destruction of human embryos. In Oregon, voters stubbed out an effort to hike cigarette taxes to expand the government’s health-care coverage for kids.

Elections in odd-numbered years aren’t merely off-year elections that don’t include a presidential contest; they’re off-off-year elections that don’t include regular congressional match-ups, either. Except for the minority of Americans directly affected by them, this year’s votes were overshadowed months ago by the 2008 races, which as of today have formally moved out of the on-deck circle and into the batter’s box.

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