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Voters Reject GOP State Initiatives—What's the Message for 2012?

| November 10, 2011

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President Obama addresses a National Women's Law Center event November 9.

 In a week when voters shot down anti-union and anti-reproductive choice measures, President Obama took pride in initiatives to advance women's equality.

Republicans overreached and came up short in the November 8 elections this week.

Mississippi voters slapped down GOP attempts to define “personhood” as occurring at the moment of fertilization. They proved that conservative southerners can say no just as easily as voters in Colorado to a measure that critics say would imperil birth control pills and in vitro fertilization and restrict doctors from treating cancer patients who are pregnant.

In Ohio, an unusually large off-year turnout of voters repealed a union-curbing law enacted earlier this year by a governor elected in last year’s Republican landslide.

In Maine, voters repealed another GOP law that had eliminated voter registration the same day as the election. In Iowa, voters thwarted Republicans from getting a legislative majority that could have led to repeal of the state’s same-sex marriage bill. And a major Tea Party anti-immigrant crusader was defeated in Arizona.

That was the good news and Democrats were hungry for it. Many were quick to predict that this was a foretaste of victory in the 2012 presidential elections. It's far from a lock, however, especially if the economy remains rotten.

Certainly, the Ohio campaign to repeal the union-bashing rules energized union members and rank-and-file Democrats who were offended at the frontal attack on the right of public employees to organize. Organized labor, women’s groups and the Obama campaign put in major money and ground troops.

The Ohio vote came months after a newly elected Republican governor of Wisconsin pushed through a similar bill restricting union bargaining rights. In both states, the bills were backed by the Koch Brothers of Texas along with other measures to reduce government, cut regulations and lower taxes for the wealthy.

Other GOP-controlled states with similar bills pending watched the Ohio results closely.

If GOP governors decide to put the union-restricting proposals on a back burner for 2012, that would avoid giving labor voters a hot-button issue to get out the vote. It would leave job losses in industrial states as a central election voting issue, which can’t help but hurt Democrats.

President Obama has revved up his crusade for job creation since the summer and stepped up his criticism of the GOP as the party of No—one that instead of enacting job-creating measures spends much time on prayer, abortion and union restrictions. That may put Republicans in a bind. But a bad economy puts voters in a foul mood about incumbents.

Abortion will remain an issue but probably won’t have the salience it might have had in 2012 if the “personhood” amendment had passed in Mississippi. Its presence on the ballot brought in Planned Parenthood and other national reproductive rights groups and produced a schism in conservative and religious groups because the impact was unclear. Even the Catholic Church kept hands off rather than crusading for the proposal as it has done for more clear-cut anti-abortion measures.

If the amendment had passed, it would have set up major confrontations in the 2012  election between pro-choice groups and backers of a myriad array of measures to ban abortion. Mississippi women could have seen first-hand what a ban on birth control would do to their lives. Some Republicans were glad to have dodged that bullet—for 2012.

The Colorado-based sponsors, who had hoped for passage in a conservative Southern state as a potential vehicle to get the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, still plan to get the “personhood” amendment before voters in Florida, Montana, Ohio and Oregon.

But none of those efforts is expected to affect the 2012 election. Now it will be up to the pro-choice groups to shake up voters with the fear of an anti-abortion GOP president making up to three Supreme Court appointments in the next four years.

And then there is the issue of who can vote.

Republicans have sponsored voter-suppression laws across the country, claiming these are needed to curtail voter fraud while producing no evidence of such fraud. A total of 34 states plan to require government-issued photo ID cards in order to vote. Early voting has been curbed in other states. And the nonpartisan Brennan Center says this could mean five million voters won’t be recognized as legitimate voters, most of them young, low-income and voters of color—and probable Democratic voters.

It’s taken awhile for the electorate to catch on to the GOP’s voter-suppression strategy. Maine was the first to repeal one of these newly enacted GOP laws, which had barred registration on election day.

These off-year elections offer clues to 2012 but nothing definitive.

The disarray in the Republican presidential ranks is a free offering to Democrats. A sex scandal affecting the frontrunner adds to the candidates’ difficulty in gaining traction. A major Tea Party activist who had crusaded against immigration was recalled Tuesday in favor of a more moderate Republican in Arizona. But Republicans strengthened their hold on legislatures in Virginia and Mississippi.

Public opinion about the Tea Party and its ideological opposite, Occupy Wall Street, has shown that independents, especially, have gotten disillusioned with the Tea Party and that there is significant agreement with the anti-wealthy theme of the Occupy forces.

What is clear is that both movements are impatient with the political gridlock and—sorry, Koch brothers—there also is a general feeling of too much of a gap between the wealthy and the rest of us.

Analysts also say that the in-your-face demonstrations on Wall Street put union activists on notice that they had to upgrade their tactics, prodding them to take a leaf from the Arab Spring and the Occupy activists to use nonviolent protests to confront the establishment and loosen the conservative hammerlock on politics.

Leaderless grass roots movements can be volatile. But for Democrats mired in the muck of a gloomy economy, giving a nod to the Occupy forces may be a gamble worth taking.

President Obama Addresses the NWLC

Obama seemed to allude to that in a Wednesday night speech to the National Women's Law Center, which also was recognizing women who had been Freedom Riders 50 years ago in the South.

“History is not always made—in fact, often is not made—by generals or presidents or politicians. Change doesn’t always happen quickly or easily. Change happens when a group of students and activists decide to ride a bus down South, knowing full well the dangers that lie ahead. Change happens when a group of legal secretaries decides that the world needs more women attorneys––and they start an organization to fight for people like them. Change happens when one woman decides, 'I don’t want to be paid less than that man who’s doing the exact same job over there. I want to be paid the same.' [A reference to Lily Ledbetter, who was attending the event.] Change depends on persistence, and change depends on determination. That’s how change happens. “

That’s how change happened on August 4, 1961. That’s how change will happen today, especially when it comes to securing equal rights and equal opportunities for women.”

He then got down to the business at hand: forcing Congressional Republicans to vote on job creation bills he will put before them: “they’re going to get a chance to vote on whether we give a tax cut to virtually every small business owner in America––including 900,000 women. These are folks who run the restaurants and stores and beauty shops and other small businesses that create two-thirds of all new jobs. There’s no reason they shouldn’t get a break.

“The American people are with me on this––and Republicans in Congress should be with me, too, because it’s right for the country. Instead, they’re spending time focusing on how to turn back the clock. Instead of figuring out how to put more Americans back to work, they’ve been trying to figure out how to take away preventive care that is covered under the Affordable Care Act.

“Instead of making life easier for women in this country, they want to let insurance companies go back to charging higher prices just because you’re a woman. Instead of working to boost our economy, they’re out there spending time trying to defund Planned Parenthood and prevent millions of women from getting basic health care that they desperately need––pap smears and breast exams.

“That is not the right direction for this country. These folks know they can’t win on the big issues, so they’re trying to make the fight about social issues that stir up their base. They’re spending their time trying to divide this country against itself rather than coming together to lift up our country.

“And we don’t have to settle for that. The American people shouldn’t have to settle for that.”

Obama appealed to the standing-room only crowd to make their voices heard to force legislators “to do their jobs by worrying about the jobs of the millions of Americans they were elected to serve….I promise to keep doing everything I can to help every single American achieve their own piece of the American Dream.”

He said “It’s a promise I’m making as the inheritor of the extraordinary sacrifices that were made by these Freedom Riders; as a friend of people like Lilly Ledbetter, who embody all that’s good and decent in this country.

“It’s a promise I’m making as an American who believes that the future of our country depends on expanding the circle of opportunity for everybody. Because that next generation of smart, powerful women? They’re already knocking on the door. They’re coming, and we need to get ready.” 

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