Lessons Learned from the 2011 Election by Stephen Gheen

By at November 18, 2011 | 4:21 pm | Print

Lessons Learned from the 2011 Election by Stephen Gheen

In election 2010, most everything fell against Democrats.

One year later:

  1. The national economy is sputtering with historic levels of unemployment,
  2.  Every public poll reveals the unbridled anger of citizens towards government for its gridlock and the lack of leadership to extricate middle class Americas from their economic plight,
  3. Republicans went into the 2011 election cycle with control of more houses of state legislatures across the USA than in recent history,
  4.  The Tea Party is an ascendant force within the Republican Party, and President
  5. Obama’s job approval ratings are at their nadir.

Not a productive political backdrop for Democrats headed into the 2011 election.

Republicans held tantalizing prospects of inflicting another sweeping defeat, perhaps a mortal blow when coupled with the Democratic debacle in 2010.  Republican political operatives believed they were poised to gain full control of two state legislatures; Mississippi and Virginia, reduce the Democratic advantage in both houses of the New Jersey legislature, and capture majority control of the Iowa State Senate. Republicans also put harsh conservative ballot initiatives to voters in a number of States where every initial expectation was for passage.

Democrats went into the election trying to regain their national footing and rebuild from historic 2010 losses.

The Obama campaign has issued a brief overview of the election results from their perspective. A copy of that review can be found here.  This Memorandum seeks to provide a broader survey of election night and to suggest a more expansive sent of conclusions.

At the end of the night, voters chose a distinctly middle course that in retrospect seems reasoned and tempered compared to the aspirations and rhetoric of both political parties.  Republicans did win full control of two legislative chambers: Mississippi and Virginia.  Most notable is Virginia, a critical swing state in 2012.  The 2011 election results make President Obama’s path to victory acutely more problematical in the Old Dominion.

Democrats held control of the Iowa State Senate and improved their position marginally in New Jersey.  A Republican victory in Iowa would have moved total political control of the state legislature to their Party in this critical 2012 swing state, a distinct tactical advantage for Republicans in 2012.
Democrats gained one seat, net, in the New Jersey legislature, retaining majorities in both chambers.  It was a good effort in a State where Republican Governor Christie is very popular.

On policy issues, voters tended to rebuke more radical Republican doctrines.  Several pertinent examples:

  1. The Democratic school board victory in Wake County, North Carolina was a major reversal of Republican fortunes.  Wake County was “ground zero” for the preservation of public education in the United States.
  2. Voters dealt Republicans resounding blows on Tea Party ballot initiatives in Mississippi, Ohio and Maine.
  3. Surveying news articles from across the nation that discuss local bond/financing initiatives, it appears that voters were approving new government expenditures that would require tax increases, but are being selective in their approval.

In sum, Republicans did not deal the intended death blow to Democrats by any measure, but they inflicted some wounds, particularly in Virginia.  Democratic victories showed signs that our iconic donkey “ain’t dead yet,” but we remain a long way from winning a derby.

America is fundamentally polarized.  The principal lesson from election 2011 is that the national debate will be won or lost in elections and referenda at every political level across the United States by the forces that work the hardest, organize the most effectively and raise the insane amounts of money that it will take to communicate to very voter. In sum, 2012 will be a clash of ideologies that could define the direction of this country for the next generation.

For North Carolina Democrats, the lesson of 2008 was repeated in 2011.  In Wake County, where turnout greatly exceeded normal off year election turnout and in Charlotte, where turnout was above normal, Democrats had some of their greatest successes.

The National Tour

#1 North Carolina
Republicans won control of the Wake County School Board in 2010, but lost every 2011 race necessary to restore control to Democrats by a single vote. Coupled with impressive victories in Charlotte city council elections, Democrats demonstrated their return to dominance within at least two major NC metropolitan areas.

This contest assuredly set a record for spending on a school board race in North Carolina.  Both Parties and their allied organizations conducted an unparalleled grass roots effort for a local race. Art Pope, the Republican “godfather,” and Pat McCrory, the presumptive Republican nominee for NC Governor, committed themselves directly in this race.  They lost. The Tea Party’s selected candidate could not carry the day.

Democrats won the seat 52% to 48% in a District that at best leans Republican.

While Democrats are rightfully celebrating their achievement, the fact remains that the margin of victory denotes a badly divided public.  That conclusion is crystalized from the fact that the Republican Tea Party candidate had no appreciable experience in public education but had served as a hostess in a strip club came within approximately one-thousand votes of winning while her Democratic opponent was respected as a long time retired school teacher.

The Charlotte City Council took a decided turn to Democratic on Tuesday.  Democratic Mayor Anthony Foxx was reelected by large numbers and Democrats won every contested City Council race.  Democrats enjoy a 9-to-2 margin on the City council that provides Mayor Foxx strong backing for his agenda.

The demographics in Charlotte have favored Democrats for years; and each year Democrats have underperformed the inherit potential.  With Mayor Foxx’s election to office, Democratic organization has grown and is reaping the greater potential.  Charlotte has even more potential, and Democrats seem committed to developing its potential to the fullest.

The next NC Democratic “star” may well be Mayor Foxx.  Republicans did not mount a serious challenge to his reelection in 2011; he is very popular across race, gender and economic lines and he is a prolific fundraiser.  He is astute on policy issues and Charlotte’s municipal government is weathering the economic crisis better than many major metropolitan regions in the United States.  If his personal ambitions lead to higher office, it could be exciting times in the Democratic Party.

#2 Mississippi
Determined to continue the assault on a women’s reproductive rights, the Mississippi legislature put a state constitutional amendment on the ballot to define life as beginning at conception. Passage would have triggered another round of litigation before the US Supreme Court in hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade.

Modern Mississippi is mostly Republican and a Republican won the governorship on Tuesday. Some public polls suggested that the constitutional amendment would pass. It failed; approximately 45% to 55%.

Why?  Opponents organized around the message that the proposed amendment was so strict that it “would have made it impossible for a woman to have an abortion in the state of Mississippi. Mississippi’s ‘Personhood Amendment’ would also have made it hard for a woman to undergo in vitro fertilization treatments or purchase morning-after pills.”  Read more:

The margin of defeat was obviously fueled to an appreciable extent by a swath of Republican voters.  The message; Tea Party Republicans had gone too far, even for one of the most conservative states in the nation.

#3 Ohio
The Republican assault on labor unions was at its zenith in Ohio.  Republicans passed legislation essentially ending the right of collective bargaining. Organized labor poured some 25 million dollars into a campaign to defeat the Republican measure.  The ballot initiative to stop implementation of the new law garnered a truly unexpected 61% of votes.

At the same time, some 65% of Ohio voters supported a ballot initiative that calls for exempting citizens of the State from the mandates of national health care.

It is apparent that Republicans crossed party lines to vote against their elected leaders on the issue of collective bargaining and Democrats crossed party lines to vote against national health care.  A critical difference may have been funding.  Again, the AFL-CIO alone committed a reported 25 million to organize against the abolition of collective bargaining.  From news reports, it does not seem that Democrats or allied organizations funded an effort to defeat the health care initiative given the fact that passing the measure was largely a symbolic exercise as the US Supreme Court already has pending cases testing the power of the Federal Government to mandate individual health insurance.

#4 Maine
Republicans who gained control of the Maine legislature in 2010 passed an act to curtail same day voter registration.  A ballot initiative sought to prevent the measure from becoming law. Some 60% of voters cast a ballot to veto the legislation.  This margin of defeat required a substantial number of independent and Republican votes.

#5 Arizona
State Sen. Russell Pearce, the principal architect of the anti-immigration law that sparked national attention was removed from office by a recall that was led by another Republican.  This race is significant as another early example of Republicans internecine warfare that is breaking out sporadically across the United States.

Governors & State Legislatures

Mississippi and Kentucky were the only states conducting gubernatorial elections.

Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia had State legislative races.  A total of some 578 state legislative seats were at stake.  This is a fraction of the nearly 81% of 7,384 state legislative seats that will be elected in 2012.  Republicans will control full 21 legislatures, adding two chambers on Tuesday, and the Democrats only 11.  Seventeen statehouses are split control.  Nebraska has one bipartisan chamber. In Iowa, a special election for a single state senate seat previously held by a Democrat would determine if Republicans would exercise full control over the state legislature.

In the House of Delegates, Democrats lost eight seats.  Republicans now hold 2/3rd of that chamber and unbridled control.  While one State senate seat is subject to a recount, Democrats have apparently lost four seats, resulting in a 20-20 tie, which would give Republicans practical control of that body as the State’s Republican Lieutenant Governor who presides over the Senate would break any tie vote.

The GOP retained the governorship.  Most Democrats running statewide could only muster votes in the lower 40% range.

Control of the Mississippi House has not absolutely been determined as of this writing, but it appears that Republicans will control that chamber for the first time since Reconstruction.  In the State Senate, Republicans have a 6 seat majority.

It was a very good night for Democrats in Kentucky.  The incumbent Democratic governor, who is very popular, won reelection handily.  With his high approval ratings, reelection would have been expected under most circumstances.  Yet, Democrats picked up several other statewide seats against a band of Republican Tea Party candidates.

 New Jersey
New Jersey Democrats retained control in both houses of their legislature. Democrats gained one seat in the lower house and the Senate remained an eight seat Democratic advantage.

In a brazen political move to bring about a special election that would determine partisan control of the Iowa legislature, Iowa’s Republican Governor successfully enticed a Democratic freshman Senator with an appointment to the State Utility Commission and an $87,000 annual salary. Democrat candidate Liz Mathis held the seat on Tuesday, winning with just over 55%. Democrats retain control of the Senate: 26-24 and Republicans continue to hold the House.  The Democratic leader of the State Senate immediately announced that Democrats will continue to block efforts to a) cut business taxes, b) ban same-sex marriage and c) restrict a woman’s reproductive rights.


There are literally hundreds of local bonds/referendums across America on a variety of projects that government seeks a public commitment to borrow funds and raise taxes.  As a general proposition, I follow about 40 bond votes every election cycle; on different underlying projects, and from different geographic areas across the United States.

In 2011:

  1. Middleton, Connecticut approved bonds with over 66% of the vote to repair roads and become a member of a regional wastewater district.
  2. Voters in North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania defeated bonds to build an $18 million recreational center by a no vote greater than 66%.
  3. In Buncombe County, North Carolina voters narrowly approved a ¼ cent increase in the sales tax to fund capital improvements at A-B Tech.  The measure was passed largely on margins inside the Asheville City limits.
  4. In Loudoun County, Virginia (where Republicans obtained a historic sweep of legislative races) three bonds; school construction, school renovation and increasing emergency services easily passed, with a low of 58 percent for the construction bond and 72% supporting increased emergency services.
  5. A statewide referendum in Texas to let counties finance redevelopment of unproductive or blighted areas by issuing debt obligations was defeated with some 60% voting against the measure.
  6. Libraries across the US received public support:
    1.  “The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh will receive about another $3.25 million a year  . . . .  The tax revenue, equivalent to $25 per year or $2.09 per month on $100,000 of assessed property, will be used only for the operation and maintenance of the 19-branch library system.”  72% voted for the bond.
    2. “Voters in Ames, Iowa, approved an $18 million bond referendum to renovate the Ames Public Library. Unofficial results show that the measure passed with 76 percent of the vote, 3,960 to 1,235, according to the Iowa State Daily.”
    3. Billings, Montana, will get a new library because 57 percent of voters there approved a $16 million bond referendum . . . .”
  7. In Minnesota, some 176 school levies were on voters’ ballots and 123, over 70%, passed. The total levies were spread across 126 school districts.

The commonality among all of these bonds/referendums suggests some guiding principles:

  1. Even in a bad economy, most voters are still willing to increase their taxes to pay for specific community infrastructure they deem important to their communities.
  2. Americans have not given up on public education.

Americans believe that there is much waste in government.  A recent Gallup poll documents the ever increasing number of Americans who believe that all levels of government are wasteful. In particular, the perception is that the Federal Government wastes more than one-half of every dollar spent.

Voters expect their tax dollars to be spent wisely, and that expectation is not currently being met.  The clear implication for those supporting continued public spending in any area is to gain public approval by setting out the specific objectives of spending and demonstrating that the program has been successful in accomplishing its goals.  Democrats also need to be formulating a responsible message that stewardship of public money requires that everyprogram is reviewed for efficiency, waste and fraud.

Side Notes

Washington & Atlanta
Business and Industry won several ballot measures on both coasts. Voters in Washington State abolished state control of alcohol sales to allow private store sales. Costco reportedly spent more than $22 million to support the measure, the most costly initiative in State history.  In Atlanta, Georgia, voter approved Sunday sales of alcohol.  The proposal was backed by a large retailer.

Perhaps the passage of both measures indicates that people crave easier access to alcohol in these “hard times?”


Democrats held their own in 2011.  Following a disastrous 2010 election cycle, 2011 reassures Democrats they can still compete.  This should provide Democrats with a slight psychological edge because the dramatic shift to Republicans has largely abated and Republicans lost several referendums in which citizens, including substantial numbers of their own Party, are limiting their philosophical objectives.

Conversely, Democratic issues, as reflected in the bonds/referendum across the United States, fared better than many Democratic candidates, with the exception of national health insurance.  A case can be made that Republican negative messaging has soured the Democratic “brand” for its candidates, but citizens are more supportive of specific Democratic programs.

The economic crisis provides Democrats a prime opportunity to create positive messages and improve the image of the Party.  Democrats need to very specifically outline our vision of restoring the economy and putting people back to work.  For Republicans, the central message continues to be “cut taxes.”  This overly simplistic mantra will not work, and Democrats have to make that case and set forth a positive vision.

In their messages advocating continued funding for public education and a strong social services safety net, Democrats need to also convey that in these hard times money should be carefully targeted, that specific goals be set for every program and report the progress of every program.  In accordance with good management practices, every program should be subject to review for effectiveness, waste and fraud.

If Republicans continue to brand Democrats as the party of “tax and spend only,” the economic crisis may sweep many Democrats from office.   The off-year election reflects that citizens are still willing to listen.

Stephen T. Gheen is a long standing political analyst within the Democratic Party.  He has a private website: Turning North Carolina Blue: Voter Registration” that provides salient data monthly on voter registration trends in North Carolina.

Stephen T. Gheen    919-264-8520     sgheen@nc.rr.com 


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