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11.09.11

Election Day Backlash

Voters rejected Mississippi’s anti-abortion ‘personhood’ amendment but chose a GOP governor, and struck down Ohio’s anti-union bill and part of Obama’s health-care reform. John Avlon on populist anger’s new direction. Plus, join The Daily Beast's live chat during tonight's GOP debate.

Swing voters asserted their independence again on Election Day 2011, repudiating Republican ideological overreach in key votes but denying Democrats clear-cut victories heading into 2012, as the cycle of over-reach and backlash continues.

In Mississippi, the anti-abortion “personhood” amendment to the state constitution was decisively defeated 58 percent to 42 percent, while at the same time Republican gubernatorial nominee Phil Bryant won 59 percent of the vote over Democrat Johnnie Dupree. The two votes are evidence of significant ticket-splitting, even in this bastion of the Bible belt—a recognition that some measures are simply too extreme, and Republicans do not automatically vote in lockstep with the religious right.

The wisdom of the effort to have fetuses declared full human beings was questioned by national right to life groups and even Jacksonville’s Catholic bishop as going too far and undercutting the long-term chances of overturning Roe v. Wade.

For those keeping score at home, the personhood amendment has now been rejected in three consecutive elections—Colorado in 2008 and 2010, and Mississippi in 2011. If it could not succeed in a low-turnout, off-cycle election in one of the most conservative states in the nation, this particular attempt to do an end run around Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose seems to have come to an end, though supporters will no doubt keep trying in other states.

In Ohio, Republican Gov. John Kasich’s collective bargaining reform was decisively defeated by a margin of 63 percent to 36 percent, marking a major victory for union forces in a test of their ability to get out the vote in advance of 2012.

The Buckeye State’s public-sector collective-bargaining reform followed the same lines as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial measures. Advocates said they were necessary to rein in long-term costs, while opponents called them ideologically driven union-busting legislation. In the end, there seemed to be broad recognition that the Republicans had overreached with the scope of this legislation, even as specific portions of the bill—such as requiring government workers to pay in a bit more for their health care—retained broad-based support and may be resuscitated in the next legislative session.

But before Democrats break out the Champagne with talk about how the Ohio vote, and Kasich’s unpopularity, indicates the likelihood of a pivotal win in the state in 2012, the same voters rejected a key provision of President Obama's signature health-care legislation by a similar margin, giving Ohio the ability to opt out of the individual mandate. In other words, many swing voters who rejected the collective-bargaining reform also voted against the individual mandate. So while the union ground game has been successfully tested, opposition the health-care law has its nose under the swing-state tent. This is not a clear-cut liberal victory.

One final note on Ohio: these two ballot initiatives spurred more than $40 million in special-interest spending, including more than $30 million by unions seeking to overturn collective bargaining. Tip O’Neill’s maxim that all politics is local has been turned on its head—increasingly, all local politics is national.

An additional anti-extreme proof-point came in Arizona, where a rare recall vote succeeded—this time, not a bout of RINO hunting but an effort to turn out conservative State Senator Russell Pearce, author of the controversial immigration status inquiry bill and an ally of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He lost not to a Democrat but a comparatively centrist Republican, Jerry Lewis, who reported incidents of attempted intimidation and was frustrated with Pearce giving a tone of intolerance to their community.

To round out the swing-voter theme of the night, Kentucky reelected its Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, with 56 percent of the vote over his Republican rival, a conservative populist clown who spent the last week of his campaign trying to make Hinduism an election issue. This marks the second off-cycle gubernatorial election Democrats have won this fall in the Appalachian region, following West Virginia Democratic incumbent Earl Ray Tomblin’s win last month. These Democratic wins have not drawn much attention, despite running counter to conventional wisdom. Yes, these states are overwhelmingly likely to vote Republican in 2012, but the fact that Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul’s home state reelected a Democrat as governor shows that voters are not pulling the lever in lockstep with one party.

So what are the lessons that Election Night 2011 held for 2012?

First, the conservative landslide of 2010 has hit its limits and is beginning to inspire a broad-based backlash. The rejection of the personhood amendment and collective-bargaining reform reflects a pushback against ideological overreaches. It follows the current unpopularity of swing state Republican governors like John Kasich, Wisconsin’s Walker, and Florida’s Rick Scott, who narrowly rode the 2010 wave into office and quickly inspired buyer’s remorse. In the high turnout 2012 election, it is hard to see how experience with these executives will inspire these swing-state voters to endorse unified conservative control of Washington.

The fact that Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul’s home state re-elected a Democrat as governor shows that voters are not pulling the lever in lockstep with one party.

The union mobilization in Ohio does reflect a resurgent ability to find common cause with moderates and the middle class. But the rejection of the individual mandate makes the vote a split decision in the Buckeye State.

In past recessions, populist anger was directed at either big business or big government. Now voter anger is directed at both, and the two parties are having a hard time adjusting their left/right playbooks to account for this shift. The anti-incumbent narrative likewise failed last night, as Kentucky Democrat Beshear was easily reelected. Instead, there seem to be a consistent impulse to reject ideological overreach, a reassuring sign of rational ticket-splitting even in this overheated political environment. Neither party should feel false confidence heading into 2012.