Election Day 2011: What to Watch For

Posted: Nov 08, 2011 10:30 AM

America's electoral Super Bowl is still 363 days away, of course, but tonight's results may provide a few tea leaves ahead of the main event.  Although there are local and state elections taking place in a host of jurisdictions across the country today, let's focus on three big ones:

(1) Ohio.  Residents of this critical swing state will weigh in on a series of ballot initiatives, two of which merit special attention.  The first important measure is a referendum on the state's controversial collective bargaining limitations, which went slightly farther than Wisconsin's successful budget fix.  I'll link once again to Conn Carroll's primer on Ohio's recently-enacted law:

Kasich's new law: 1) bans government unions from bargaining over health insurance, 2) requires that all government union members pay at least 10% of their wages toward their pensions, 3) ends seniority rights as the sole factor in layoffs, 4) replaces seniority pay raises with merit pay raises, 5) bans government unions from striking, and 6) makes government union dues voluntary. But government unions would still be able to bargain about many other topics including pay and working conditions.

This is such elementary, necessary stuff that even one of the state's leading Obama-endorsing papers -- the Cleveland Plain Dealer -- is pleading with its readers to uphold the legislation.  It's not looking promising, though.   PPP's final round of polling shows support for overturning the law outstripping its support by a wide margin.  Organized labor has gone all-in on Issue Two, and government unions' efforts are poised to bear fruit (Gov. Kasich's numbers are especially dismal):

Two recent polls forecast trouble ahead for Kasich. The PPP (D) survey shows that 59 percent of voters oppose the anti-union law and will move to repeal it, while 36 percent support it and will vote to keep it. But it's not just Democrats who want to throw out the law: 30 percent of Republicans are planning to buck their party and vote to overturn the governor's bill while 66 percent support it. The majority of independents (54 percent) plan on repealing the law while 39 percent will support it. A Quinnipiac survey taken at the end of October told a similar story: 57 percent want to repeal the law while 32 percent want to uphold it.  Perhaps adding insult to injury, 57 percent of voters surveyed by PPP disapprove Kasich while only 33 percent approve, placing him among the most unpopular governors in the country.

The old status quo may be fiscally unsustainable, but it sure feels warm and gooey.  If Buckeye State liberals are preparing to bask in the glow of their expected Issue Two win, the very next question on the ballot may temper their enthusiasm.  Issue Three will allow voters to render a verdict on the centerpiece of President Obama's healthcare "reform" law.  That battle is shaping up...not so well for the Left:

Meanwhile, voters appear [prepared] to reject one facet of the federal health care law through another measure on the ballot. The health care initiative is called "Issue 3" on the ballot, and would amend Ohio's constitution to block the federal government from requiring residents to carry health insurance. (A yes vote would reject the health care requirement and a no vote would uphold it.)

The measure is largely symbolic, as the courts are still weighing whether the federal government can mandate that each person carry health insurance and federal law trumps state law. But if it voters in this battleground state reject the law on Tuesday (and in doing so, they would also prohibit Ohio from implementing its own state-run health care system, like the one in Massachusetts), it will likely be seen as a rebuke of the president's signature legislative accomplishment. The PPP poll shows 49 percent of voters plan to vote to reject the law while 35 percent plan to uphold it.

(2) New Jersey.  Governor Chris Christie may have disappointed some conservatives by electing not to run for president, but his decision, coupled with a series of policy triumphs, has impressed Garden State voters.  Christie's job approval rating has swelled to nearly sixty percent, which is virtually unheard of in the state.  As one Trenton-watcher put it, "we really hate our politicians here, so anything above 50 percent is kind of amazing."  With Christie's popularity as a backdrop, New Jersey Republicans are undertaking a long-shot effort to re-take the state House and/or Senate this year.  Democrats currently enjoy a six-seat majority in the upper chamber (23-17) and a 14-seat advantage (47-33) in the lower house.  Republicans need to pick off four Senators to take over that body.  What happens if they net just three seats, leading to a tie?  Due to the state's unusual laws, the Senate would actually have co-leaders, one from each party.  And you thought DC was dysfunctional. 

Christie has been actively involved in the 2011 campaign, carefully selecting races in which he believes he could exert significant impact.  One New Jersey politico tells me the GOP is most sanguine about its chances in three state Senate districts: One and two (down south in Cape May and Atlantic Counties), and heavily-populated Bergen County's 38th district, in the northeast corner of the state.  The Governor has been cagily lowering expectations, downplaying the likelihood of any Republican gains:

This week Gov. Chris Christie reiterated earlier assertions that state Republicans will score a win in next week’s legislative mid-terms should they simply maintain the status quo. Picking up any seats would be a home run Christie and the state GOP have said, citing several decades of both state and national data that show mid terms have not been kind to sitting presidents and governors. "If we're not one of those administrations that loses seats, that even with this awful map that was foisted upon us by the 11th member, then we'll be making history," he said.

(3) Virginia.  New Jersey was only responsible for half of 2009's Republican resurgence, which foretold the following year's red tidal wave in the midterms.  Since Bob McDonnell whipped his Democratic opponent and won the governorship, his leadership has set the Commonwealth on a course to conservative fiscal nirvana.  The budget is balanced, a surplus is growing, the tax burden is light, unemployment is low, and businesses are thriving.  McDonnell has been rewarded for his strong stewardship with a truly astounding 70 percent approval rating.  He's accomplished much despite being partially handcuffed by a Democrat-held Senate, and Virginia Republicans are hoping his popularity will help propel the party to full control in Richmond.

McDonnell allies I've spoken with feel supremely confident the GOP will maintain, if not expand, its majority in the House of Delegates.  The big X factor is the Senate, where Democrats currently hold a four-seat edge, 22-18.  In reality, though, Dems have "wreaked havoc" with the redistricting map, rendering two sitting Republicans districtless.  In order to win back the upper chamber, the GOP will have to win both newly-drawn open seats, then pick off at least two Democrats.  Unlike in New Jersey, an evenly divided Virginia Senate would empower the Republican Lt. Governor to cast tie-breaking votes.  Three of the blue seats Republicans have targeted most aggressively are in districts 1, 17, 20, and 38.

The McDonnell/Obama gap is striking.  Democrats are running away from the president, while Republicans are eager to appear with the Governor.  "We've got a big advantage over the Democrats in terms of an enthusiasm gap," a Virginia GOP source says.  "Our folks are excited to vote, which will help with turnout."  McDonnell has been "extraordinarily involved" in the off-year races, I'm told, pouring millions of dollars of money from his PAC into local races.  "[The Governor] is popular in every region of the state, so he's an enormous asset," the operative tells me.  "There isn't a single race in the Commonwealth where his name is clearly unhelpful."

One last personal aside:  As a Northern Virginia resident, my mailbox has been blitzed with Democratic mailers over the last few weeks.  Apparently there's a very scary Tea Party Republican running in my district.  She's even (gasp!) against abortion on demand.  Flier after flier has alerted me to these frightening facts.  Little do the Democrats who sent them realize that they've inadvertently galvanized me to go out of my way to vote for this particular right-wing extremist, even though that task has proven to be logistically inconvenient.  A friend of mine who's receiving similar mailings notes another irony: Liberals often accuse conservatives of exploiting "wedge" social issues to goose turnout and tip close elections.  In 2011, when the number one concern on virtually every voter's mind is the economy -- by far --Virginia Democrats are distributing one mailer after another warning about a local Republican candidate's views on abortion.  Who's using fear and wedge issues to distract voters now?

In 2009, political earthquakes in New Jersey and Virginia exposed a shift in the national terrain, leading to massive Republican gains in 2010 -- including a crimson sweep of Ohio.   What might 2011 say about 2012 in those three states?  We'll gather a few clues tonight after the polls close.  As we await the results, some of you can actually help shape them.  Get out there and fulfill your civic duty: Vote.