World & Nation

Election hints at larger populist backlash against deeply divided government

Spurred by interest groups with an ax to grind, voters this week pushed aside sharply partisan laws or the legislators identified with them — charting a rebellious, if centrist, course heading into next year’s election.

In some cases, Tuesday’s results flowed from the voter purges well-known in California and now apparently spreading to other states. Several of the targets were politicians who had ridden into office on a similar tide of dissatisfaction just 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 influential Republican state senator who pushed Arizona’s stringent anti-immigrant measure, 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 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 that the Michigan 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 have privately 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,” inevitably prompting a voter backlash, he added.


Driving much of this activity are the dollars and desires of groups like organized labor, which primarily financed the successful rollback of a GOP assault on the power of public employee unions in Ohio, or the antiabortion 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 Tuesday in places like 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.

“They might’ve said it was too much too soon,” Republican Gov. John Kasich acknowledged on election night, after Ohioans struck down the law he signed last spring that sharply curbed collective bargaining for government workers.

The 2011 election was not an undiluted triumph for Democrats, though they held on to their governorships in Kentucky and West Virginia, states that vote Republican in presidential contests.

Republicans appeared to have won complete control of the government in Virginia, a key swing state, though a recount is expected. Ohio’s rejection of government healthcare mandates, cheered by Republicans as a repudiation of President Obama’s plan, was a largely symbolic victory, since 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 Joe Biden — cast it as the revenge of a middle class that “will no longer be trampled on.” Those words seemed to signal Obama’s intention to continue heading in that direction rhetorically over the coming year.

Hart, the Democratic pollster, said that “if words were enough, yes, it puts him in tune” with the voters. But “people are still looking for that metal and that steel,” he added. “They are looking for Obama to take action and be tough and be steadfast.”


An adviser to the Obama campaign, while predicting that “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.”

Labor strategist Mike Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO political director, argued that the successful campaign in Ohio, a perennial presidential battleground state, provides “a road map for the Democrats, if they’re willing to use it in 2012.”

The union-led coalition tried to convert a debate over labor policy into a fight about the middle class and the positive side of government. They blitzed the airwaves with ads promoting police, firefighters and nurses as protectors of public safety and health. In a similar vein, as part of his latest stimulus measure, Obama has attempted to get Congress to provide billions to hire more teachers and first-responders.

But Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, told reporters that Democrats needed to be more aggressive in promoting the interests of the middle class.

Heading into a campaign where Obama’s reelection is, at best, a 50-50 proposition, the president’s focus should be on “jobs, jobs, jobs and more jobs,” Trumka said.

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