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20 March 2018 23:27 (South Africa)

US November off-year election results: a portent of what to expect in 2014 (and even 2016)

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

An orchestra tuning up before playing an overture or a short piece, or the flashes of lighting and distant sounds of thunder that may - or may not - precede one of those torrential Highveld thunderstorms may be useful stand-in metaphors for the results Tuesday’s voting. This election didn’t choose a new president, a new Congress and elected only two governors. However, it did offer glimpses of what may be crucial for the 2014 midterm election, and the presidential election two years later. With the voting just over, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a first cut at a closer look of what it meant.

5 November’s American election didn’t upend the nation’s electoral map, but it did deliver some initial mileposts en route to 2016. New Jersey’s Republican incumbent Governor, Chris Christie, crushed his opponent, Democratic state senator Barbara Buono.

Meanwhile, Clinton fundraising Svengali, Terry McAuliffe, held off Republican Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, to win Virginia’s governorship. Bradley Byrne, a lawyer backed by the US Chamber of Commerce, defeated the tea party-backed candidate, Dean Young, in a special GOP-only primary to succeed retiring congressman, Jo Bonner. Byrne is the heavy favourite in December to hold onto this congressional seat. But the key here is that Byrne’s victory gives establishment business groups a victory over the tea party.

And over in New York City, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio bludgeoned his Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, by some forty percentage points - returning the city to the Democratic Party fold for the first time in two decades. There were also elections for mayor in Detroit and Boston, as well various other local and state races across the country.

But what does this jumble of results really mean? First, some qualifications. Midterm elections generally do not attract even the relatively low voting rates that happen in presidential year elections in the US. Presidential elections have rarely broken through 60% of eligible voters, while midterm elections are lucky to reach even 40% levels. The elections this year, once all the statistics are certified will almost certainly show even lower levels of participation. As such, the real task for candidates in off-year elections like this one is to mobilise activist, committed voters in the face of a more general voter apathy or ignorance.

Traditionally, election analysts say that most actual election contests in America - and most especially in election years such as this one - are fought on local terms. The late Massachusetts Congressman Tip O’Neill’s famous adage that “all politics is local” generally is that much more true in an off-year election.

But, there is a footnote to this. Sometimes, an individual local competition begins to take on larger consequences and meaning when national political figures (and the commentariat) and campaign funders begin investing more cosmic significance in the outcome of a contest. Now, following this round of voting, every analyst, every campaign activist, organiser, funder and fundraiser – and every politician, of course - is looking at this collection of results for what they will portend for the future.

In New Jersey, Chris Christie has cemented a hold on the post-position as the likely and logical front-runner for a presidential candidacy in his party. And this is especially true since he has taken on the mantle of a candidate who can hold off the depredations of the tea party within the Republican fold and still win a national contest. How is this claim made? First of all, he won big in a decidedly blue state (blue being the colour coding for Democratic base states, with red the colour of their opponents) over a solid, yet lacklustre Democrat. And his margin was bigger this time around than the first time he ran for governor.

He won traditionally reliable Democratic counties and cities, save for the area around Newark and Jersey City. He managed to make solid inroads into reliably Democratic demographic blocs – blacks, Latinos, women, young people – and he strategically positioned himself as trending moderate on social issues in dropping his opposition to same sex marriage in New Jersey, right in the midst of the campaign. Perhaps most importantly, however, Christie used his campaign – and the memory of his embrace of President Obama in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last year to guarantee federal emergency help – to send out a message that here was at least one Republican office holder who knew how to work with both parties to get things done.

And there was also a subsidiary message that here was an official who could get things done, unlike those (presumably useless) people in Washington. In doing this, Christie even seemed to channel an older brand of Republican - men like Nelson Rockefeller - who demonstrated they held the nation’s interest at their heart, rather than just narrow partisan political advantage. And he did all this in the face of shucking off anything to do with tea party-ism. In sum, he demonstrated that here was one Republican who could seriously win – big - in a Democratic Party-aligned neighbourhood.

Christie is also due to become the chair of the Republican Governors Conference and he will be in a prime position to affect and shape selection of Republican candidates for a whole range of state-wide offices across the country in the future – thereby building an even bigger national presence for Christie and a new network of allies. To those in the Republican Party who want to win, rather than be pure of heart and noble of spirit in pursuit of their political holy grail, Christie may just be the champion they have been looking for - for nigh on a decade. Of course if you happen to be Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio, you probably feel rather differently about that last bit.

Speaking of such nascent candidacies, Politico reported, “The Public Policy Polling survey shows that Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul are the favourites among Republican voters, tied at 16 percent. But Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Jeb Bush closely follow at 15 and 14 percent, respectively, setting up a virtual tie between the four potential candidates.” Of course this survey was taken just before Rand Paul fessed up to plagiarising whole chunks of text for his articles and speeches.

In Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, the man who had demonstrated a spellbinding skill as Bill Clinton’s fundraiser a few years ago (and a fair amount of criticism for his special diligence at this task), beat off the Republican challenger, the state’s Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli. Observers say this was a particularly polarising campaign - President Barack Obama's health care overhaul appears to have been a significant negative - thereby keeping McAuliffe’s support lower than earlier polls had indicated would be the case. Meanwhile, however, the recent partial government shutdown proved a significant negative for Republicans.

Commenting on this race, the AP noted, “In Virginia, exit polls showed that about a third of voters said they were personally affected by the government shutdown, and those who were broke for McAuliffe by nearly 20 points. But Cuccinelli held a narrow edge among those who said health care was their top issue and 53 percent of all Virginia voters said they opposed the health care overhaul passed in 2010. Tea party leaders and social conservatives said the state attorney general's vociferous opposition to the health care law narrowed the gap - even though it didn't overcome a fundraising disadvantage.” Attempting to put on a brave face over the result, Ralph Reed, chair of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, argued, “This has got to be a real wakeup call for the Obama White House and Democrats in general. If the tail of the Obamacare meltdown could have this kind of impact ... then I think they need to be really concerned about the red state Democratic seats” in the 2014 Senate elections. Except that McAuliffe won the job.

In his new position, McAuliffe, as a long-time supporter of the Clintons, could well be a serious ally for Hillary Clinton if she ultimately decides to go after the Democratic nomination for the presidency, one last time. In such circumstances, McAuliffe will be on hand and in the spotlight to marshal the fundraising tsunami needed for her to gain that nomination – and then, presumably, the general election as well.

A look at the electoral map of Virginia might seem to give the impression of islands of Democratic support – in a sea of Republican backers – but the map can deceive. The blue bits, though, are heavily populated suburban areas like the Northern Virginia counties filled with higher income, well-educated civil servants and government contractors, high tech employees and young families. Much of the rest of McAuliffe’s support was in the state’s other urban areas like Norfolk, Charlottesville and Richmond. Republicans, by contrast, were heavily concentrated in the less-well populated rural hinterland. With the demographic shifts taking place in Virginia, the state is now clearly trending away from the reliable red state status it had for decades, and is now well into a kind of purplish-blue state-dom instead. This is clearly not encouraging for Republicans who want to look into their crystal balls for a sign about their future in states like Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Colorado – all trending Democratic now.

In New York City, meanwhile, Bill de Blasio overwhelmingly trounced his Republican opponent, returning the city to the Democratic column after two decades of control by Republican, then independent billionaire, Michael Bloomberg, and Republican Rudi Giuliani before him. De Blasio’s election marks a clear leftward turn in city politics – de Blasio’s activist past included time working with then-Sandinista-led Nicaragua as well as campaign work on behalf of the city’s previous Democratic mayor, David Dinkins. In that period, de Blasio also worked closely with Patrick Gaspard, the recently arrived US Ambassador to South Africa.

De Blasio’s family circumstances are also indicative of the demographic changes working their way through American society. On de Blasio, the New York Daily News commented, “The Brooklyn-raised Patrick Gaspard, who was sworn into the diplomatic post in August, is one of de Blasio’s closest friends. They met after working together in City Hall under David Dinkins, forging a bond over a similar progressive vision and mutual family ties to the Caribbean. Gaspard — a former top aide to President Obama — was born in the Congo to Haitian parents, and Chirlane McCray, de Blasio’s wife, has roots in Barbados.”

And in summing up de Blasio’s unlikely rise to pre-eminence in New York City, the New York Times has said, “He overcame a troubled childhood and attended some of the country’s most prestigious universities. He married a black writer who once identified as a lesbian, Chirlane McCray, and created a proudly biracial home. He cut his teeth as a political operator but abandoned life as a strategist to make an audacious bid for public office himself. Now, as Mr. de Blasio, 52, prepares to become chief executive of one of the world’s largest cities, he will have a far grander stage on which to test the decidedly liberal worldview that has been the hallmark of his career."

Taking an early stab at the key takeaways from these scattered electoral outcomes, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake summed them up, noting:

First, “Virginia isn’t for social conservatives. Ken Cuccinelli beat McAuliffe among voters who said the economy was the most important issue and among those who named health care as the biggest priority. But, among those who said abortion was their most important voting issue — roughly one in five voters — McAuliffe crushed Cuccinelli by something close to a two-to-one margin…. Half of Virginia voters said that Cuccinelli’s position on issues was ‘too conservative,’ while fewer than four in 10 said he was ‘about right’ on the issues.”

Second, Republicans have an increasingly serious problem attracting the unmarried cohort of voters – often the young, upwardly mobile voters. In Virginia, the two Post journalists wrote, “Cuccinelli carried married men and married women by single digits. But, he lost among unmarried people by massive margins,” losing this group even more badly than Mitt Romney did in last year’s presidential poll.

Third, the Republicans are backing into a demographic slip-slide as their rock, the white vote, is steadily shrinking in America. In the 2012 election, this was already on significant display - but the trend lines clearly point the wrong way for Republicans.

Fourth, and this goes a bit differently than an earlier conventional wisdom, is the fact that Cillizza and Blake argue, “Republicans don’t need independents; they need moderates: Despite Cuccinelli’s loss, he actually won among self-described independents. At the same time, he lost by more than 18 points among self-described ‘moderates’ — further proof that these two categories are hardly the same thing.”

Fifth, is that the path to victory for Republicans is increasingly clear. The only problem is that they have to convince their base that this is the case. In New Jersey, Cillizza and Blake, wrote, “Exit polls showed Christie winning among women and running even with his Democratic opponent among Latinos. If Republicans could emulate that in other states, they would win just about all of them. Christie is a pragmatic, conservative politician who won a massive victory in a blue state; Cuccinelli was a very conservative tea party-esque candidate who lost to an unheralded opponent in one of the nation’s premier swing states…. Of course, this message has often fallen upon the GOP base’s deaf ears (think Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, Christine O’Donnell, Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin) and it likely will again.”

Sixth, and finally, is the fact that Christie ran as the “un-Republican”. As the two journalists noted, “The exit polls proved that while New Jersey voters like (love?) Christie, they don’t like his party much. Just 38 percent of Garden State voters had a favourable view of the GOP while 58 percent had an unfavourable one.” Not good news if you want to lead the charge of the party faithful to victory.

Going forward, the voting data coming from this week’s round of elections is going to undergo microscopic analysis, as tacticians from both parties try to figure out what this will mean for the mid-term election next year. And by that time, America will be deep into its next presidential election cycle. Some people can hardly wait. DM

Photo: Newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio arrives at City Hall to meet with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York November 6, 2013. (REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

Read more:

  • Analysis: Post-shutdown, pragmatism is in at the AP
  • Bill de Blasio campaign driven by political mix of former Clinton and Obama aides, U.S. ambassador to South Africa, and local talent in the New York Daily News
  • Virginia, New Jersey results highlight Republican Party’s divisions, problems at the Washington Post
  • 6 takeaways from Election Night 2013 at the Washington Post
  • Poll: GOP 2016 pick a 4-way split at Politico.com
  • Chris Christie Coasts to 2nd Term as Governor of New Jersey at the New York Times
  • Terry McAuliffe, Democrat, Is Elected Governor of Virginia in Tight Race at the New York Times
  • New York’s Next Mayor, an Audacious Liberal at the New York TimesByrne Wins Republican Runoff in Alabama House Race at the New York Times
  • Big Money Flows in New Jersey Races to Thwart Christie Agenda at the New York Times
  • The GOP’s new reality, a column by Michael Gerson in the New York Times
  • Shutdown: The tea party’s last stand, a column by EJ Dionne in the Washington Post
  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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