Washington – This week's elections around the country were brought to you by the word “overreach,” specifically conservative overreach. Given an opportunity in 2010 to build a long-term majority, Republicans instead pursued extreme and partisan measures. On Tuesday, they reaped angry voter rebellions.
The most important was in Ohio, where voters overwhelmingly defeated Gov. John Kasich's bill to strip public employee unions of essential bargaining rights. A year ago, who would have predicted that standing up for the interests of government workers would galvanize and mobilize voters on this scale? Anti-labor conservatives have brought class politics back to life, a major threat to a GOP that has long depended on the ballots of white working-class voters and offered them nothing in return.
In Maine, voters exercised what that state calls a “people's veto” to undo a Republican-passed law that would have ended same-day voter registration, which served Maine well for almost four decades. What's often lost is that the conservative Republicans elected in 2010 aren't simply pushing right-wing policies. Where they can, they are also using majorities won in a single election to manipulate future elections — by making it harder for young and minority voters to cast ballots, and by trying to break the political power of unions. The votes in Maine and Ohio were a rebuke to this strategy.
In Mississippi, perhaps the most conservative state in the union, voters beat back a referendum to declare a fertilized human egg a person by a margin of roughly 3-to-2. Here was overreach by the right-to-life movement, which tried to get voters to endorse a measure that could have outlawed popular forms of birth control and in vitro fertilization.
The war against overreach extended to the immigration issue, too. In Arizona, Russell Pearce became, as The Arizona Republic noted, the first sitting state Senate president in the nation as well as the first Arizona legislator ever to lose a recall election. Pearce, who spearheaded viciously anti-immigrant legislation, was defeated by Jerry Lewis, a conservative with a mild demeanor. Lewis correctly saw his as a victory for restoring “a civil tone to politics.” This was a case of old-fashioned conservatism beating the tea party variety.
And in Iowa, Democrats held their state Senate majority by winning a special election that had been engineered by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. Occupy Wall Street, notice that elections matter: A Republican victory over Democrat Liz Mathis would have opened the way for Branstad to push through a cut in corporate income taxes.
Mathis' defeat could also have allowed conservatives to amend the Iowa Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Mathis prevailed with 56 percent despite robocalls from an obscure group instructing voters to ask Mathis which gay sex acts she endorsed. (It should be said, as The Des Moines Register reported, that better-known organizations opposed to gay marriage denounced the calls.)
The one potential bright spot for Republicans was not as bright as it was supposed to be. In Virginia, both sides had expected the GOP to take over the state Senate. But at best, the Republicans will achieve a 20-20 tie, giving Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling a decisive role. And their chance of even getting to 20 hangs on the recount of an 86-vote margin in one district.
The split means Virginia has not reverted to its earlier status as a Republican bastion. It remains a purple state. Especially significant, Democratic consultant Mo Elleithee observed, were the party's successes in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and exurbs and in Hampton Roads, precisely the areas where President Obama needs to do well if he is to carry Virginia next year, as he did in 2008. Democrats also comfortably held the New Jersey Legislature, suggesting the limits of Gov. Chris Christie's much-touted political magic.
One of the only referendum results the GOP could cheer was a strong vote in Ohio against the health insurance mandate. While health reform supporters argued that the ballot question was misleading, the result spoke to the truly terrible job Democrats have done in defending what they enacted. They can't let the health care law remain a policy stepchild.
That useful warning aside, Tuesday's results underscored the power of unions and populist politics, the danger to conservatives of social-issue extremism, and the fact that 2010 was no mandate for right-wing policies. They also mean that if Republicans don't back away from an agenda that makes middle-class, middle-of-the-road Americans deeply uncomfortable — and in some cases angry — they will lose the rather more important fight of 2012.