It is often the least of these who have the most at stake in elections. Nov. 2, 2010, was a night of reckoning for advocates of working people, immigrants, and civil rights for gay people, who faced many hard-fought losses. As the altered landscape became clearer for Democrats, a few narrow victories loomed all the larger in strategic importance.
In one of the election's few bright spots, Washington senator Patty Murray clung to a small but consistent lead in her fight for a fourth term. Murray, a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, faced a frenzy of accusations in the final days of her race for door-knocking efforts on her behalf by undocumented volunteers. The incendiary charge, leveled on conservative talk radio and ricocheting on the Web, showed understanding on the right that partisan control of the U.S. Senate could hinge on her contest.
But solidarity may be the senator's saving grace, and by extension, Democrats'. She has consistently backed a federal bill to bar discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people so widely backed by the public but long delayed in Congress that most Americans believe it's already law. Loyalty to Murray from LGBT voters, particularly in the counties along Puget Sound, seems likely to make the difference in extending her Senate service.
Some conservative triumphs held particular sting for progressives. Pennsylvania Congressman Patrick Murphy, an Iraq War veteran and sponsor of House legislation to overturn the military ban on openly gay servicemembers, narrowly lost. Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, an ally of immigration reform and a trail-blazing supporter of marriage equality in the U.S. Senate, went down to defeat.
Among the night's ugliest outcomes was the ouster of three supreme court justices in Iowa who last year joined in a unanimous ruling recognizing equal access to civil marriage for committed same-sex couples under the state constitution.
The Iowa result followed a well-funded campaign by out-of-state groups targeting the trio. It bore out the dire prophecies of Republican and former U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She has repeatedly warned that last January's 5-to-4 ruling by her former colleagues in the Citizens United case could corrupt state campaigns for judicial retention and undermine Americans' faith in the fairness of the courts.
Just Playing the Game, or Playing on Prejudice?
For this dynamic, and the strategies that fuel it, John Boehner owes Americans an explanation. The incoming House speaker presumptive has joined top GOP spokespeople in characterizing the election outcomes as a response to economic frustrations and a rebuke to Obama administration "monstrosities" like health care reform.
But in state after state, Republican get-out-the-vote messages emphasized much different monsters. They appealed to fears and resentment of immigrants and gay people. In Iowa, urgings to overturn the 2009 court ruling on marriage by installing a GOP governor and majorities in both chambers of the legislature appeared within a wisp of realization. Control of the state Senate came down to one contest for a pivotal seat, with the Democrat leading by less than 40 votes.
Few outcomes indicate more starkly how the rights of minorities remain subject to the will of majorities at the polls than a pair of local referenda in John Boehner's back yard, in Bowling Green, Ohio. In a city with a sizable university campus and student electorate, nearly 8,200 votes ended up split, with two nondiscrimination ordinances aimed at protecting LGBT people against bias hanging in the balance. One appeared to pass by a mere 24 votes; another lost, by 116 votes. Uncounted student ballots might still reverse the second margin, in favor of fairness.
The Whim of the Majority
In El Paso, Texas, an ordinance extending domestic partnership recognition to unmarried partners, including same-sex couples, went down to defeat at the hands of voters.
Oklahoma voters engaged in a binge of legislating against minority groups via ballot measures. The outcomes bore out a strategy of Republicans in the state legislature to use the referenda as tools for boosting turnout. They overrode the veto of outgoing Democratic governor Brad Henry, who had sought to block popular votes on the divisive questions.
Massive majorities approved laws demanding state business be performed in English, requiring voters to show ID when casting ballots, seeking to nullify the recently passed federal health reform act, and, in a dubious appeal to anti-Islamic sentiment, banning recognition of sharia law in the state.
The last portends no real-world legal impact, given that federal law takes precedence on such issues. But it casts an ominous shadow. Some conservatives see electoral rewards in stigmatizing America's several million Muslims, as well as local Arab immigrant communities, the majority of whom are often Christians.
Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and other shrill voices from this summer's Fox-News-fueled debate over the Manhattan mosque seek a national stage for their electoral ambitions. Expect to see the no-sharia-law measure repeated on other states' ballots as a tool for tapping into religious intolerance and scaring up votes for Republicans in 2012.
Intolerance as Glue
Appeals to anti-Muslim intolerance may replace homophobia as the glue that holds the right-wing electoral coalition together. But don't look for Republicans to let go of anti-LGBT ballot measures any time soon.
Lashing out at same-sex marriage, despite majority support for equality by Americans overall, could have new traction for Republicans in at least four states. In Indiana, GOP takeover of the state House may open the door for an anti-LGBT amendment to appear on the 2012 ballot, when Obama, who carried the state in '08, runs for reelection.
The same holds true in North Carolina and Minnesota, where Democratic governors may find their hands tied in thwarting such drives. Even in New Hampshire, where Democratic governor John Lynch signed the state's marriage law and won reelection, a new, overwhelming Republican majority in both chambers of the legislature may disregard voters' demands for job creation and instead prioritize the marriage law's undoing.
Clues for Fighting Wedges and Flood of Conservative Cash
Still, Election Day was not a washout for progressives. The conservative tide appeared to hit a seawall at the Rocky Mountains. Democrats Michael Bennet in Colorado and Harry Reid in Nevada won tight Senate contests. In California, Barbara Boxer rode her defense of working families and a deft attack on employers who outsource jobs to a rousing victory, by more than 700,000 votes, over former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
Even as threats loom to the freedom to marry in New Hampshire and Iowa, California is among the states were election outcomes suggest possible opportunities for extending recognition to same-sex couples. In the lone statewide race widely expected to go to the Republican, attorney general candidate Steve Cooley actually trails Democrat Kamala Harris. The San Francisco district attorney promised not to appeal the August federal trial court ruling striking down Prop 8. This pledge seemed to boost her standing.
A similar dynamic of swing voters shifting away from a GOP candidate for flirting with antigay policies was in evidence in a closely watched Assembly race in suburban Sacramento. There Andy Pugno, the attorney who led legal defense of Prop 8 and an earlier anti-marriage drive in 2000, actually lost his quest for an open seat in a Republican-leaning district by more than 3,000 votes. Making the stigma of intolerance stick to a practitioner of wedge politics can be a winning strategy, even in uphill territory, for a well-organized progressive coalition.
Gubernatorial and legislative victories in New York, Connecticut, Hawaii, and Rhode Island suggest openings for marriage equality in those states. Similar potential exists in Illinois and Oregon, depending on razor-thin outcomes in contests for governor, both of which could tip for Democrats.
In California, spending sprees like the windfall from corporations that fueled Republicans' takeover of Congress actually seemed to have a boomerang effect. Republican Meg Whitman outspent Democrat Jerry Brown more than 5-to-1 but lost handily in the race for governor. Golden State voters also punished two Texas oil companies in their drive to block the state's anti-global-warming law. Voters rejected Prop 23 by a 3-to-2 margin.
The New Populism
These outcomes hold a lesson. For Californians, they reinforce a pattern from the June primary. Then, on Prop 16, a multi-million-dollar campaign from one utility didn't quite sell voters on pre-empting future competition from public-sponsored power providers. In that same election, state Assembly candidate Betsy Butler overcame an infusion of corporate attacks to walk away with a clear win in a crowded Democratic primary.
With such verdicts, left-coast voters are showing remarkable discernment by reasserting a sense of the public interest in fair debate and an even playing field. Triggering such discernment depends on clear, direct communication from credible ambassadors, such as neighbors or fellow union members, that convey the stakes for voters and their families in their language. Labor activists learned this lesson a decade ago. The Obama campaign of 2008 reflected it wholesale. Now it shapes winning Democratic and progressive issue campaigns.
By rejecting glossy attacks or appeals to corporate power and rewarding moderate to progressive candidates and measures deemed as victims of piling on or a tilted playing field, California voters are on the leading edge of an emerging dynamic in American politics. Call it the new populism.
Unlike its older versions, the new populism rests not on candidates' arguments about common sense and the common good. Instead it depends on voters' own sense of fairness, responsibility, and the desired balance of power in their lives and communities. But invoking the skullduggery of Wall Street or the treachery of outsourcing doesn't trigger such populist values in a vacuum. Gaining votes from progressive, moderate, and crossover conservative voters requires fluent, repetitive messaging delivered by credible messengers, ideally in coalition.
More Hopeful Signals
In a move to break fiscal gridlock, Golden State voters lowered the threshold for approving a state budget from two-thirds to a simple majority in the legislature. This wasn't the only progressive ballot measure outcome out west. Washington state voters defeated privatization of worker's compensation and, in a separate measure, of state liquor sales. Colorado voters rejected a sweeping ban on abortion as well as three measures aimed at slashing taxes and public services.
Voters in Montana may have started a trend by putting caps on interest rates for short-term lenders often accused of preying on working people. And even in a conservative environment saturated with anti-immigrant appeals, progressives in Arizona secured a majority "no" vote on cuts to an early childcare program.
Back east, Massachusetts voters also rejected a tax rollback drive. Florida voters, in a rare check on Republicans' success in taking control of many states' redistricting processes, surpassed the 60-percent threshold to set strict nonpartisan rules on new legislative line-drawing next year.
Overall, for progressives, it was an election of harsh outcomes and hard confrontation with the lost opportunities of the current Congress. These include comprehensive immigration reform and a legislative response to the Citizens United ruling that might have stemmed the flood of corporate money into elections, to the long-term benefit of Republicans. After Nov. 2, a rare open window for progressive reform in Washington is slamming shut.
Still, the election contained some signals of hope. It even held some clues for how the Davids of American society, from labor to religious and immigrant minorities to the LGBT community, might continue to coalesce and fight deep-pocketed Goliaths in future elections.
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