The Rise of Fairness Voters and “the Math” of a New Majority
by Hans Johnson
President, Progressive Victory
November 17, 2006
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.
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.
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.
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.