The Rise of Fairness Voters and “the Math” of a New Majority

by Hans Johnson

President, Progressive Victory

November 17, 2006

 

America has come through a bruising election campaign and chosen a different direction. That a new course is at hand is clear not only at the federal level, where Democrats exceeded the number of House and Senate victories forecast by pre-election pundits, but also at the state level, where a wave of party-switching by Republicans and special-election wins by Democratic legislative candidates in GOP-leaning districts foreshadowed for at least a year the turnabouts that occurred Nov. 7. At long last, new majorities of moderate to progressive leaders are set to take the reins in several state capitols and in Washington.
 


 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  
Signe Wilkinson’s Editorial Cartoon ©2006 Signe Wilkinson. 
All rights reserved.  Published originally in the Philadelphia Daily News. 
Used with the permission of the Washington Post Writers Group
in conjunction with the Cartoonist Group.
 
 
The Nightmare Is Over

Change will happen not a moment too soon. The shift in course in federal and state policy-making is above all a shift away from raw partisanship, manipulation of election administration and district-drawing, and the corruption of governance practiced for the past five years by Republican leaders.

The fact that four members of the GOP majority in Congress have resigned in disgrace in the past year has drawn deserved coverage coast to coast. Likewise, the fall of conservative strategist,  moralist, and gambling profiteer Ralph Reed in Georgia as well as the jailing of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, both frequent guests at the White House, have exposed a web of money-grubbing and influence peddling that extended throughout their party. Disturbing as these developments remain, it was a less conspicuous story of bad ethics by a top Republican that riveted the readers of political news in the nation's capital in 2006, even more than the saga of possibly deliberate leaks by Karl Rove and "Scooter" Libby. It was the revelation that Bush's top domestic policy adviser Claude Allen repeatedly stole items from suburban Target retail locations and pocketed money from phony returns. In early 2006, store investigators and Maryland police traced at least 25 episodes of fraud and stealing by Allen. True to a pattern of irresponsibility among high-level Republicans that only grew more absurd as the year wore on, Allen's lawyer downplayed the series of thefts, captured on videotape, as merely "misunderstandings."

In this vein, before identifying some of the most significant victories on Nov. 7, this report takes a moment to mourn the dismal period the nation has endured. One reason the victories chronicled in this report remain so notable is that they signal an end to a right-wing detour in our nation’s politics. This deviation in course was marked by exploited fear, misdirected anger, unbridled arrogance, and partisan abuse of legislative and executive authority that jeopardized the constitution and the democratic process.

At the federal level, some of the foremost abuses during the period included the attempt to sweep away public policy on privacy, surveillance, incarceration, and torture deemed inconvenient by the president; to dissolve contracts and outlaw labor unions by civil servants; and to short-circuit the confirmation of judges by shutting out a minority party from offering advice and consent on court nominations. Other abuses involved allowing the city of New Orleans to be nearly destroyed because of poor planning and incompetent and corrupt federal disaster relief; butting into private medical decisions and turning the body of a brain-dead Florida woman into a political football; dispensing taxpayer money to right-wing churches for discriminatory hiring and illegal politicking; removal of oversight authority on billion-dollar contracts for aid and rebuilding subject to squandering and plunder; ending protections for whistle-blowers; and misuse of tax investigators to target both churches and civil-rights organizations whose leaders dared to criticize the president. Set against a demoralizing war in Iraq, these abuses have at times distracted attention from the toll of that conflict while discouraging a long-term commitment to public service by well trained and talented would-be leaders.

Like these abuses at the federal level, right-wing operatives at the state level came to use the ballot referendum as a weapon to lash out at politically unpopular groups, such as gay people, in bids to exploit prejudice. In some cases, the policies unleashed by these measures pre-empt any recognition of health care needs or committed relationships by same-sex partners and families forever. One side effect of such ostracism by ballot measure is making some states permanently unwelcoming to gay people, their families, and close allies. But sponsors at the state and national level care only for the short-term payoff from such measures and not the long-term consequences. These types of abuses of the political process and of public authority would only have escalated had the voters not cut off the power supply to some of the office-holders and insiders eager to set them in motion.

Like Fred Cook’s searing account of the McCarthy era in the early 1950s, modern progressives are likely to remember the period just now concluded as the “nightmare years.” In the wake of the terrorist attacks on America in September 2001, widespread feelings of grief, fear, anger, and vulnerability among voters made inviting wellsprings for politicians to tap into. As with many motivations of human behavior, touching these raw spots can trigger solidarity or hostility.

Political messaging from the period offers a striking case in point. In a stirring ad campaign in 2002 meant to raise awareness of the losses, sacrifices, and patriotism of union members following the 9-11 attacks, the United Autoworkers (UAW) sought to play on the potential of trauma to rekindle common purpose. Its messages, concluding with the reminder that “America is a union,” are a testament to a cooperative vision of labor relations, economic recovery, and working families’ values. Unfortunately, this positive portrait of resilience and collaboration was soon to be trumped by darker allusions to the nation’s wounds and dogged attempts to prevail through division.

With orchestration by the White House, Republican strategists chose to foment not solidarity, but hostility. They crafted a campaign plan to misdirect blame for the attacks and allege weakness in responding to them by Democrats. For a while, it worked. Their strategy proved indispensable in securing authorization for the ill-fated Iraq war, in waging the elections of 2002 and 2004, and in systematically shielding Republican leaders in the executive or legislative branch from scrutiny, even as evidence of irresponsibility and corrupt behavior mounted.

Journalists and many news outlets were sadly complicit in this strategy, one of whose aims was to re-brand the Democratic party by stealing the last syllable of its name. Talk show host Diane Rehm, a holdout against this naming ploy, once commented that this re-branding ploy seemed designed to emphasize the last syllable of the proposed new name. Indeed, "Democrat" ends with three letters that sound like a large rodent--and one that perhaps also scares an elephant.

Other reporters echoed the jeering treatment toward Democrats and dissenters, including moderate Republicans, that GOP leaders and a jingoist White House closely hewed to. The Administration was caught giving press credentials to crackpot correspondents, such as Jeff Gannon, and bankrolling discredited propagandists, such as Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher, to spread its party line—even when it meant breaking the law. Such contempt for journalistic standards, for the public and its right to information, and for truth itself is the absurd extension of partisan arrogance that dominated the nation’s politics for five years.

Diatribes and mocking, even dehumanizing, depictions of political opponents became the order of the day. Often, the very outlets that were distribution channels for the attacks grew so accustomed to the acid disrespect that they didn’t bother to buffer it with rebuttal. Here are just a few examples of the hubris and bullying rhetoric by the authors of Republican strategy between 2001 and 2006:

“Once the minority of House and Senate [Democrats] are comfortable in their minority status, they will have no problem socializing with the Republicans. Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant. But when they've been 'fixed,' then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful."
Grover Norquist, in 2004. See
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/05/09/AR2005050901013.html

“We're going to be able to lead this country in the direction we've been dreaming of for years.”
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, after the 2004 election. See
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/05/09/AR2005050901013.html

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Senior advisor to President Bush, summer 2002, quoted by Ron Suskind in New York Times Magazine, Oct. 17, 2004. See
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html?ex=1255665600en=890a96189e162076ei=5090

“Yeah, I'm looking at all these, Robert, and adding them up, and I add up to a Republican Senate and Republican House. You may end up with a different math, but you're entitled to your math. I'm entitled to THE math.”
Karl Rove, Oct. 31, 2006, heard on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” with Robert Siegel. See
http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2006/11/the_math.html

The arrogance of these statements is now self-evident and laughable. This alone is subtle evidence that the electorate and political news coverage have turned a corner since November 7. But for the preceding five years, these remarks more than passed the laugh test. In the case of Rove and his overrated electoral acumen, they even gained deference from some reporters. In the days between Rove's claim and the election, several reporters speculated that Rove's rose-colored glasses might be accurate. In fact, they were woefully distorted. Only in the wake of the election did Rove’s “math” and megalomania come in for post-hoc criticism. That it took a coast-to-coast wipeout of GOP candidates to point out his departure from reality and arrogance in asserting his own omniscience remains a lesson in the fallibility and gullibility of news professionals.

Still, the very existence of this track record of arrogance stands as a reminder that many reporters practiced their profession quite ably and presented news fairly during the period, despite contempt or resistance from sources. Facts and law enforcement also have a way of catching up with brazen scofflaws. Norquist now faces overdue investigation into his use of tax-exempt charities for partisan politicking. DeLay faces trial on charges of illegal campaign contributions. These developments may seem like poetic justice. But they do not erase the tragedy of the preceding five years or leave the political process or news coverage any less subject to tyrannical arrogance or demeaning portrayals of minority parties.

In retrospect, GOP hubris rested in the belief of permanent control of the legislative branch. But that majority control is now history. And so is lockstep GOP control of many state governments and, quite importantly, over the administration of elections themselves.
 
Notable Progressive Victories

In several states, Democrats regrouped from barriers they faced in 2004 to full and fair access to voter registration as well as to casting ballots. Far from putting faith in lawsuits or the courts to restore an even playing field in the conduct of state elections, they launched candidates of their own. In the case of Working Assets, the progressive phone company based in San Francisco, the wounds of 2004 were one catalyst in an innovative voter education and fund-raising program that backed Democrats in bids to become secretaries of state in seven key races. A prominent winner was Jennifer Brunner in Ohio. Four of the other six candidates also prevailed, including longtime progressive leader Mark Ritchie in Minnesota, who in ’04 led efforts to engage nonprofits in nonpartisan get-out-the-vote programs under the banner of National Voice. Ritchie and Brunner are two examples of how perseverance and expertise can turn political heartbreak into progressive victories that restore confidence in the democratic process.


Raising States' Minimum Wage: OH, AZ, CO, MO, MT, NV
Following the 2004 election, progressives felt stung by a series of antigay state ballot measures that became magnets for message persuasion and participation by a small but determinative slice of voters. We vowed not to allow a tool crafted by populists and our own progressive forbears one century before to be used against us and to beat us yet again. At hand, we had the blueprint of successful ’04 campaigns in Nevada and Florida, which drew 70 percent support. Since Bush won both states narrowly, it is clear that each measure drew between 20 and 40 percent of GOP voters. Clearly, they had visceral appeal and crossover support among voters.

 

We set about crafting state ballot measures for November 2006 to raise the state minimum wage and to be placed onto state ballots in places that did not already set baseline pay levels above the abominably low national threshold of $5.15 per hour. These measures ended up appearing on the ballot in six states (including Nevada, where a constitutional amendment must be approved twice, in successive statewide votes). All six proposals passed, with between 53 percent (Colorado) and 76 percent (Missouri) support from voters. It is especially important to note that the Missouri measure—even more so than the much-publicized state proposal on stem-cell research, which passed only narrowly—served as a reliable tool for Sen.-elect Claire McCaskill, who strongly backed it, to woo rural voters. Particularly for “infrequent voters,” or those who don’t usually cast ballots in primaries and who don’t vote regularly even in general elections, the measure lifting the state’s wage floor to $6.50 served as a hook for casting a ballot. The measure in Montana, which passed with 70 percent of the vote and will raise the wage floor to $6.15, played a similar role for farmer and Democratic Senate candidate Jon Tester. For close observers of elections, a good share of the credit for McCaskill’s and Tester’s narrow victories can be given to the campaign in each state to raise the minimum wage. And a good share of the credit for the success of all six campaigns belongs to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, the nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based organization whose staff and board members provided background and training to leaders in every state.

 

Other Victories:

 

Derailing the Attack on Domestic Benefits and Marriage Equality: AZ


Stopping Tax Schemes That Hurt Public Services: ME, NE, WA

Beating Antiabortion Attacks on Choice and Privacy: CA, OR, SD

As seismic as the shift in the political landscape at the national level has been following Nov. 7, Democratic gains in federal races tend to be more heavily publicized than lesser-known but perhaps more important gains at the state level. There, Democratic candidates posted significant wins that open the doors of state government, the so-called laboratories of democracy, more widely than at any time in the past 30 years to office-holders from diverse backgrounds and to progressive reform. Democrats won 11 of the top 12 marquee showdowns over legislative control, in Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin. They also picked up six governorships--including New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Iowa--while retaining proven executives who overcame strong challenges in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Oregon.

 

Worth noting in these victories is the repudiation of relentless antigay campaigns by an off-key chorus of scolds who sing from a suspiciously similar hymn book. They include Republican candidates, right-wing political action committees, and supposedly nonpartisan nonprofit groups, such as Focus on the Family and the Traditional Values Coalition, that are devoted to assailing gay people and blaming them for a host of social ills, including the divorce rates of heterosexuals. This chorus has come together under cover of the Bush administration’s attacks on same-sex marriage via constitutional amendment and with the apparent blessing of the IRS, whose lax enforcement of tax laws has permitted conservative nonprofits to latch onto gays as a rallying cry and to school favored politicians in the art of partisan scapegoating and smear.

 

Yes, this congeries of right-wing money, appeals to prejudice, and pseudo-religious zeal did succeed on Nov. 7 in passing seven more state constitutional amendments to forever bar same-sex marriage. But in a big defeat of the far right, a progressive coalition in Arizona triumphed over a far-reaching ban. Democratic candidates also overcame demagogic campaigns laced with antigay diatribes to win back control of both houses of the Iowa legislature; the Indiana, Michigan, and Minnesota state House of Representatives; the Wisconsin state Senate; and possibly the Pennsylvania state House (with one pivotal race in Chester County still to be called and the chamber teetering at 101 seats for both parties). Democrats likewise vanquished antigay appeals to widen their margins of control in both chambers of the Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and North Carolina legislatures. What do these results mean? In Massachusetts, they helped doom a constitutional convention to overturn an existing court precedent ensuring equal marriage. They mean that attempts by Republican strategists to use legislative majorities or closely divided chambers to put antigay statewide ballot measures before voters in general elections to pull out right-wing supporters and browbeat moderate and progressive candidates have failed. In Minnesota and North Carolina, in particular, it means these proposals are dead on arrival. And in Oregon, where Democrats took the state House of Representatives, it means longstanding massive resistance by the Republican House speaker to basic non discrimination coverage and a path to civil unions

for committed same-sex couples is finished.

 

Sweep in New Hampshire

In New Hampshire, Democrats achieved what commentators had long claimed was all but impossible. They wrested control of the notoriously conservative state legislature from Republicans for the first time since before the Titanic, in 1912. Nearly 100 of the more than 350 total state legislative seats that Democrats recaptured coast to coast came in New Hampshire.

  

Other Victories:


Switch in Iowa

Democrats Take Control of Pennsylvania State House of Representatives

Resurgence of Progressives in Missouri

Defeat of Far-Right, Anti-Immigrant Candidates in Arizona
 

Webb Victory Signals Changing Political Landscape of Virginia

 

Special recognition goes to three candidates, in particular. Victorious New Hampshire state House candidate Mo Baxley, a veteran of both nonpartisan and partisan campaigns in the Granite State, has trained a generation of activists in union organizing, voter contact, and the mechanics of elections. Winning candidate Diane Sands in Montana, who will resume a role as state representative, is a veteran of progressive politics who led a successful campaign in Idaho in 1994 to stop an antigay statewide ballot measure that would have forbidden forever any nondiscrimination or anti-harassment protections for gay people. Her victory, along with another legislator’s switch from the Republican to the Democratic party following the election, was crucial to Democrats' retaining control of state government in Montana.

 

Finally, in New Mexico, progressives—and supporters of equal rights for gay people—should console unsuccessful Congressional candidate and outgoing state attorney general Patricia Madrid, a hero of equality who narrowly lost a seat in Congress by about 1,000 votes. As the state’s top legal officer in May 2004, Madrid penned a memorandum barring the advance to state ballots of a measure to repeal the year-old nondiscrimination  law by a band of right-wing extremists who had gathered signatures in expectation of a vitriolic referendum campaign that would put Gov. Bill Richardson and fellow supporters of fairness on the defensive. Instead, Madrid invoked the state constitution, whose provisions bar public votes on proposals that put the health or safety of a segment of New Mexico’s population at risk. That is exactly the atmosphere of derision, singling-out, and potential harassment that an antigay ballot measure campaign creates, she determined. The measure was barred from going forward. In so doing, she saved the progressive community in the state, and in the country, millions of dollars for a campaign simply to keep in place a popular law that evens the playing field for LGBT people by barring bias that most Americans believe, erroneously, is already outlawed.

 

Fairness Voters and "The Math" of a New Majority

 

Concern about corruption of government was the leading issue cited in exit polls by voters casting ballots on Nov. 7. Fully 42 percent said it was a major factor in motivating their decision to vote and about whom to support and whom to reject on the ballot. This stands in stark contrast to the 2004 election, where badly worded options for voter motivation led to a bumper crop of stories about so-called “values voters.”

 

The election of 2006 saw the rise of a new segment of voters, spurred on by a host of concerns that focus on equity in the actions of lawmakers as well as balance and responsibility in the exercise of public authority: Let’s call them the fairness voters.

 

Who are the fairness voters? They are disillusioned Democrats, moderates, and poor and working class voters, more female than male, many under the age of 30. Democrats won young voters, those 29 and younger, by more than 3 to 2, a second consecutive election with a similar margin. Democrats prevailed among women by a 12-point margin, 56 to 44 percent. They won over independent voters, unaligned with either party, at about a 3-to-2 clip on Nov. 7. More significantly, they reversed a fifteen-year erosion in their support from the 20 percent of voters in households earning less than $30,000 a year. Support from this segment was nearly 2-to-1 for Democrats this year. They also regained clout with the 25 percent of voters who didn’t graduate high school or who earned only a high-school diploma. They won this segment by about a 3-to-2 margin in 2006. They also narrowly won back white Catholics, 51 to 49, while retaining robust support from union members and their families. Much of the focus in the post-election analysis will be on the suburbs, ex-urbs, and rural voters, with whom Democrats fared better in 2006 than the past six elections.

But the improved image of Democratic candidates with independents, white Catholics, low-income, and less well-educated voters, as well as women and youth generally, augurs an end to the bad old days when people unsure about party labels but convinced that government could be a tool to marginally improve the circumstances of their own family and their community would nonetheless vote for candidates uncommitted to targeted aid programs, public safety nets for the elderly and veterans, or civil and voting rights. The election of 2008 will demonstrate whether the electorate has truly turned a corner. If the trend from this year continues then, the nightmare will be over, indeed.

 
***
Hans Johnson
President, Progressive Victory
"Turning Data Into Power"
www.progressivevictory.com
ph 202-299-1100
hansj@progressivevictory.com

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