Call it the defeat of the bullying style in American politics. Election 2012 marked a turning point when the Republican Party strategy of stigmatizing various groups of voters as outsiders and rallying majority sentiment against them finally met its demise. Instead of winning through wedge politics, the GOP faced payback in a case of divide and clunker.
No person more epitomizes the bullying style through the past 10 election cycles, from George W. Bush's debut as Texas governor and the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 to his drive this year to stop Barack Obama's reelection, than Republican strategist Karl Rove. Whether fomenting resentment at Latinos and African Americans in Texas to eliminate Democrats from statewide office or using antigay ballot measures in a quarter of the states in 2004 to tip the scales for W's second term, Rove re-branded race- and gay-baiting and appeals to religious extremism as mainstream conservative politics.
Election 2012 made Rove, even more than the Republican ticket, its biggest loser. Absent a bootleg video clip revealing his own candid expressions of prejudice, like Mitt Romney's 47-percent remarks, Rove never had to answer for his failure to reckon with the nation's diversity that he lashed out at for profit and political gain. But he did not escape hypocrisy. Throughout the period of his greatest national visibility, Rove enjoyed the expert care of an African American gay hairdresser to make him presentable for the hungry gaze of television cameras (I know this firsthand because I shared the same stylist).
The fact that another gay African American, J.R. Warren of West Virginia, was his hairdresser's acquaintance before Warren's death in a brutal 2000 hate crime and that President Obama won reelection on a platform touting his leadership in signing the first federal hate-crimes law to allow investigation and prosecution of murders like Warren's might have been lost on Karl Rove. But it should not be lost on the country. It signals the policy impact of victories by Democrats, who vow to honor, not demonize, diversity; and recognize, not reject, LGBT people and families under the law. It also shows the moral significance of Rove's repudiation.
Divide and Clunker
November 6 was the third of the past four federal election days that revealed Rove's political rope tricks growing stale. It brought the triumph of an incumbent President whom Rove and his GOP acolytes repeatedly likened to Jimmy Carter and sought to deride as out-of-touch. This accusation actually backfired on Rove when Fox News called Ohio for Obama in the face of Rove's on-air protests.
The election brought gains for Democrats in the House and Senate, with women in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Hawaii leading the way with victories. Instead of giving Republicans a pass for their rush to enact voter-i.d. laws in a series of states where they openly ballyhooed the measures as benefiting the GOP by deterring senior citizens and people of color from casting ballots, voters appeared to punish Republicans for the tactic. Minnesotans rejected such a law outright and rewarded Democrats with renewed control of their legislature.
The election brought a wave of other wins by progressive ballot-measure campaigns. These included a sweep by marriage-equality advocates in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington and by foes of direct corporate spending on political campaigns in Colorado and Montana. Labor unions stopped an anti-worker prohibition on payroll deduction in California and helped pass a direly needed state tax measure. Union coalitions in Michigan turned back an emergency-powers law widely seen as an attack on public employees and in conservative Idaho convinced voters to roll back corporate-funded school reforms. Immigrant-rights supporters prevailed in Maryland, preserving an in-state tuition law making higher education more accessible to undocumented students. Marijuana legalization proponents won in Colorado and Washington. And pro-choice and church-state separation activists pulled off an impressive two-fer in Florida, defeating both anti-abortion Amendment 6 and pro-voucher Amendment 8. Sunshine State voters also showed the limits of their indulgence for right-wing firebrands on the public payroll by ousting Tea Partier Allen West from his seat in Congress.
Still, the autumn run-up to voting found Rove, whose entire career has focused on mobilizing bias in the electorate, holding court for a press corps that hung on his every utterance. Rove's public embarrassment in 2006 after insisting that he was in command of "the math" of voter turnout and outcomes that year, which ended in Democratic upsets, seemed long forgotten amidst his deft exploitation of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling to funnel millions of dollars from secret right-wing donors into Republican campaigns in 2010 and 2012. This Election Night was supposed to be his vindication.
Instead it proved an epic rejection of his brand of vindictive politicking. It also represented the resurgence of a Democratic Party that has systematically cultivated diverse constituencies--unmarried women, communities of color, immigrants, LGBT people--shunned and mocked by Rove and the Republicans in his thrall. The fastest growing groups of non-white voters, Latinos and Americans from Asian and Pacific Island heritage, supported Democrats this election by nearly 3-to-1 margins. LGBT voters exceeded even that level. African Americans voted Democratic by a 16-to-1 margin. Angered in part by several Republicans' ignorant comments on rape and the GOP onslaught against reproductive healthcare, unmarried women remained protagonists of the gender gap, voting Democratic by more than 2-to-1 and keeping the margin of women's overall support for Democrats at an 11-point margin. The share of unmarried voters, 40 percent this year, is increasing and grew by 15 percent since 2008.
It is commonplace to assert that demographics are destiny in politics. But that argument ignores the emergence of figures who resist or challenge the interest of their demographic group, such as the anti-feminist Jan Brewer, Republican governor of Arizona, or losing San Diego mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio, a gay conservative who touted his endorsements from antigay activists.
It also ignores the importance of networking within the constituency itself to advocate and build alliances for their interest. A decade of work to identify and lift the voice of the Latino voters paid dividends this election in states as diverse as Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, and Arizona, where it helped Democrats claim two narrow victories in House races, including the first openly bisexual member of Congress, Kyrsten Sinema, and may hand a third to Ron Barber, successor to gun-violence survivor Gabbie Giffords. Likewise, the four statewide victories for marriage equality were built on solid foundations of organizing by supporters of full recognition for same-sex couples, such as the Democracy Project, a nonpartisan effort begun in 2002 to train and support collaboration among state-based advocates for LGBT civil rights.
Demographic shifts create openings. But only forward-looking investment in leadership development and organizational growth can translate those openings into reliable and cohesive voter participation, election victories, and lasting improvements in representation. Karl Rove is now a laughingstock. But he remains a power-broker in Republican politics based on work that others began more than 30 years earlier, in the 70s, to create his party's conservative voting base. If Democrats keep cultivating support from their diverse bases, and make good on policy goals such as immigration reform, health security, and marriage equality, they may cement a new majority coalition that will continue to expand throughout the next generation. Not only will they prevail in national elections, they will set the agenda for federal policy--and relegate the tactics of Karl Rove to a sad chapter of American history.