Voters strike back against partisanship
Spurred by interest groups with an ax to grind, voters this week pushed aside sharply partisan laws or legislators identified with them — charting a rebellious, if centrist, course heading into next year's election.
Tribune Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — Spurred by interest groups with an ax to grind, voters this week pushed aside sharply partisan laws or legislators identified with them — charting a rebellious, if centrist, course heading into next year's election.
In some cases, the Tuesday results flowed from the voter purges well-known in California and now apparently spreading to other states. Several targets were politicians who had ridden into office on a similar tide of dissatisfaction one year ago.
"The voters have been sending a message, time after time after time, and that is, 'Look, we want you to listen to us and not to the powerful elite,' " said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. "This is a passionately unhappy electorate."
Russell Pearce, the Arizona state Senate president who pushed the state's stringent immigration law, was tossed from office in a recall. In Michigan, the state teachers union, enraged by Republican moves to cut school spending and weaken tenure for teachers, engineered the ouster of state Rep. Paul Scott, the GOP chairman of the state's House Education Committee. It was the first successful recall of a Michigan lawmaker in 28 years.
Bernie Porn, a consultant to the teachers union, predicted the recall would trigger a cycle of retaliation by Republicans. He described the political environment in the state, a major battleground in next year's election, as "toxic."
Strategists in other states privately have expressed fears about a populist revolt against government — in the form of targeted strikes outside the normal election cycle, against key elected officials and expensive contests to roll back unpopular laws.
This trend is "a logical extension of the degree of disgust with politicians and politics as it's currently practiced in a great many places," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. "Our politics have become so polarized that both parties seem to be getting pushed farther and farther from the center, which means farther and farther from where most voters reside."
Driving much of this activity are the dollars and desires of groups such as organized labor, which primarily financed the successful rollback of a GOP assault on the power of public unions in Ohio, or anti-abortion activists who promoted a "personhood" amendment that even devoutly conservative Mississippians couldn't support. That measure would have defined a fertilized egg as a person and outlawed all abortions and some forms of birth control.
Privately, GOP strategists blamed overreach by their party's elected officials for setbacks in places such as Maine, where voters threw out a new law that would have ended the state's tradition of same-day voter registration. There, as well as in Michigan and Ohio, a Republican governor had replaced a Democratic incumbent in the big GOP sweep of 2010.
The 2011 elections were not an undiluted triumph for Democrats. Republicans appeared to have won complete control of the government in Virginia, a key swing state, though a recount looms. Ohio's rejection of President Obama's health-care mandate was a largely symbolic victory, because Democrats didn't vigorously challenge the measure and it won't affect implementation of the federal law.
If there was a message for 2012 in the results, it may be that Obama's new tough-talking populism is bringing him in line with the mood of a restive electorate.
The only official White House response to the Ohio labor victory — delivered in a written statement from Vice President Joseph Biden — cast it as the revenge of a middle class that "will no longer be trampled on."
An adviser to the Obama campaign, while predicting "this tougher, more populist-looking president is going to really connect with voters," sounded a cautionary note about next year's election.
Voters "are so jaded about the candidates on both sides. Things are going to be tighter just because this is a closely divided country," said the adviser, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. "There's disgust that things don't seem to be working for America right now. It creates this vacuum of opportunity for both sides."
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