From personhood amendment to Ohio Issue 2, not a banner election for tea party

Tea party forces lost some momentum in Election 2011, as voters rejected several conservative-backed measures, from Mississippi's personhood amendment to Ohio Issue 2 on union rights.

Mark Duncan/AP
Firefighter Tom Sullivan campaigns against Issue 2 outside a polling location in Strongsville, Ohio, on Tuesday. Ohioans decided not to limit collective bargaining for 350,000 unionized public workers. The issue toppped the Election Day list of ballot questions before the state's voters.

At first glance, the tea party movement that crashed the 2010 congressional midterm election took an elbow to the nose in Election 2011.

Two tea party-backed candidates – one in Michigan and one in Arizona – were dethroned in rare recalls. Voters in Ohio rejected a law, pushed by small-government conservatives – that limited unions' collective bargaining power, and voters in Maine smashed the Republican-led ban on Election-Day voter registration.

Those and other developments suggest voters recoiled a bit from their stance in the 2010 election, when tea-party-backed conservatives won power at the state level and took control of the US House of Representatives. Subsequent political standoffs over the national debt limit and rising tensions in Washington over the direction of the country appear to have soured the public.

But if the tea party is chastened, it is not beaten.

There were tea-flavored victories large and small, as well as hints as to what independent voters – who swung big for Barack Obama in 2008 and equally big for Republicans in 2010 – like and don't like about the conservative small-government movement.

"If you look at the recall of [a tea party-backed state representative] in Michigan and [tea party hero Sen. Russell Pearce, architect of Arizona's get-tough immigration law] in Arizona, I think it certainly shows there are serious limits to the power of the tea party this year. Or, put differently, the tea party has successfully roused an opposition movement to it," says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison.

But even in Ohio, where the attack on collective bargaining went down, voters approved a measure that renounced the part of Mr. Obama's health-care reform law that requires people to buy health insurance – and by a bigger margin than the collective bargaining measure. 

"What's striking in Ohio is that Governor [John] Kasich lost his signature issue but Obama lost his signature issue on the same day, on the same ballot, among the same voters," says Professor Franklin.

Gubernatorial races, political recalls, and ballot initiatives ranging from voter rights to culture-war issues – they all took place Tuesday as millions of Americans cast ballots to determine issues ranging from worker rights in Ohio to whether Atlanta residents can buy beer on Sunday.

Results from Tuesday's election, writ large, were more muddled than declarative, say political analysts. For example, while Republicans seem poised to gain a super-majority in Virginia by taking control of the Senate, the Mississippi "personhood" ballot measure, an anti-abortion proposal that would give legal status to a fertilized egg, failed. And while Democrats retained the governorship in Kentucky, that's hardly a boost for Obama and the Democrats, because Kentucky is likely to remain firmly in the GOP column in national elections.

Combed even finer, Tuesday's results teased out two distinct tea party tangents – liberterian versus Christian conservatives – that may hint at the movement's future prospects. In Mississippi, social culture-war issues, like the "personhood" initiative, fared worse Tuesday than did a "personal liberty" ballot measure that limits eminent domain (the ability of government to seize private property), which voters approved handily. That result fits with the tea party's libertarian strain, says Franklin.

Those results hint that culture-war issues "aren't the issues Americans want to hear about right now," says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, in Atlanta. "When Republicans in the House spend time on things like defunding Planned Parenthood, that sends the wrong message to these swing voters."

At the same time, the results could offer some wind in the sails for Obama, whom New York Times statistics blogger Nate Silver recently gave only a 50-50 chance of reelection amid high unemployment and a gloomy economic outlook.

The lessons of Election 2011 may be greater for the Republican Party and its wing of tea party conservatives than for Democrats, says Mr. Abramowitz. "Ultimately, these results don't tell us very much," he says, "but there is a hint here that if the Republicans nominate a [presidential] candidate seen as too extreme, too far to the right, that could be damaging."

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