DENVER – From the libertarian West to the conservative South to the liberal Northeast, Americans struck a moderate chord in a smattering of elections this week by signaling a willingness to accept government playing a role in their lives, provided it’s not too dominant.
While there were too few races to suggest a national trend, the results do indicate that at least pockets of voters are seeking middle ground and rejecting two extremes: conservatives’ staunch anti-government pitch and liberals’ view that government is the best problem solver.
That could be instructive for lawmakers as a dysfunctional and divided Washington wrestles with philosophical questions about the federal budget and President Barack Obama’s health care law heading into the 2014 midterm election year.
In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie won as a Republican in a strong Democratic state by pitching himself as a practical conservative. He used his — and the federal government’s — response to Hurricane Sandy to his benefit. Christie called his re-election a boon for voters “who didn’t believe that government could work for them anymore.”
His easy victory came just weeks after New Jersey voters elected Democrat Cory Booker, the Newark mayor who pitched himself as a non-ideological problem solver, to the U.S. Senate.
Virginians awarded their governor’s job to Democrat Terry McAuliffe over Republican Ken Cuccinelli, a tea party favorite. McAuliffe is a longtime partisan power broker, but he emphasized government’s role in helping create jobs to boost the economy, while hammering Cuccinelli’s hardline conservatism on abortion, same-sex marriage and the recent government shutdown driven partly by GOP opposition to the health care overhaul.
In a south Alabama congressional district, Republicans voting in a special primary runoff rejected Dean Young, a combative tea party conservative, in favor of Bradley Byrne, a buttoned-down, longtime politician endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many local civic leaders. Almost defensively, Byrne called himself a “true conservative,” but he talked about the need for a congressman to make government work and help with the district’s economic development.
The middling trend carried over to ballot initiatives.
By a 2-to-1 margin, Colorado voters rejected a billion-dollar-a-year income tax hike in exchange for dramatic education changes that had U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calling the state a national role model. But by the same margin, Colorado approved a 25 percent tax as part of regulating newly legal marijuana sales. And several local tax measures passed, with the notable exception of a proposed levy on sugary drinks.
Meanwhile, several Colorado counties rejected a symbolic referendum on seceding from the state because of dissatisfaction with policies from its more liberal, urban power centers.
Colorado political analysts the voters showed they share a national preference for pragmatic government action but are hesitant about the biggest, ideologically driven ideas with uncertain consequences.
Elsewhere, voters in Portland, Maine, and three Michigan cities adopted new legal protections for recreational amounts of marijuana. One of the last dry cities in Mormon-dominated Utah opted to allow beer sales, though they capped the alcohol content at 3.2 percent. Again, the results were moderation: Voters want freedom, but still give room for some regulation.
And several communities in Ohio and Colorado voted to suspend fracking, a burgeoning oil production technique, in their towns until lingering safety questions are answered, bucking arguments for free enterprise and development in an expensive ad campaign from the oil and gas industry. They essentially endorsed government being a check on the private sector.
Texas voters, meanwhile, voted to put a check on government by letting the private sector advance convention business in Houston and rejecting a bond sale that would have refurbished the Houston Astrodome into exhibition space.
On the philosophical question of whether the government is doing too much or taking about the right amount of action to solve problems, a slim majority of voters in Virginia and New Jersey exit polls said “too much,” as they opted for candidates who tried to convince voters they are striking the right balance.
Those results mirror the 2012 presidential exit polls, when “too much” was the winner, even as Obama, the namesake of the sweeping health care law, won a second term.
The question is just what politicians do for voters with those seemingly contradictory preferences.
Purely for electoral purposes, Christie and McAuliffe clearly navigated the landscape, so well in Christie’s case that some Republicans, like Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, praised him as a 2016 White House contender who can overcome the GOP’s struggles with women and non-white voters.
And many Democrats running in Republican-leaning states next year — Georgia governor candidate Jason Carter, Jimmy Carter’s grandson; Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Lundergran Grimes; South Carolina governor candidate Vincent Sheheen — have embraced the “problem-solver” label saying that, of course, government plays a strong role in American life and the economy, particularly through schools and infrastructure.
Still, settling the policy questions is always harder.
Says James Thurber, a political science professor at American University: “It’s especially difficult for Republicans with primaries” controlled by the most conservative voters. “But people are still looking for answers.”
In Colorado, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper gave a nod to the challenge when talking about voters’ rejection of the tax plan for education spending.
“This was the voters looking at an initiative that had the potential to transform public education,” he said. “But it came with a price tag and people felt the price tag was too high. I don’t think it’s anything further than that.”