There's a lot of focus in the media and elsewhere on off-year elections for national office. Less focus is given to off-off year elections that involve state and local offices, as well as ballot initiatives. Yet those elections can serve as the most basic of building blocks in building a political majority in a federal system of government.
And, as it turns out, Democrats didn't pick up many blocks on this past Tuesday night.
They lost the governorship of Kentucky, thereby threatening Obamacare in one of the few red states where it has been fully or even partially implemented. They lost in Houston, where a anti-discrimination ordinance against gays was repealed over ridiculous fears of men dressing like women so they can commit assaults in public restrooms. They lost in Ohio, where the voters rejected a proposal to legalize marijuana. And they lost in Virginia, where a well-financed effort by Democrats to take over the State Senate failed. They also lost, in Mississippi, the governorship and a ballot initiative that would have required the constitutionality of funding for public schools, but ... well, this is Rush Limbaugh's birthplace, after all.
In one sense, it's easy to make too much of last Tuesday's good news for Republicans. Democrats did make gains on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the New Jersey legislature. There are new Democratic mayors in Philadelphia, Nashville and possibly Salt Lake City, depending on whether the unofficial vote-count holds up. There may be one as well in Houston, depending on the outcome of a run-off on December 12.
There are also, in the cases of Ohio and Virginia, mitigating factors that go some distance toward explaining the outcomes. In the case of the former, the marijuana initiative was poorly drafted and would, if approved, have allowed for monopoly control of the market. In the case of the latter, the presence of out-of-state funding from Michael Bloomberg, an advocate of gun restrictions, may have prompted a backlash against the Democrats from more conservative regions in the state.
That then leaves us with the Kentucky and Houston outcomes. In the case of the former, the big news is the replacement of a pro-Obamacare Democrat with an anti-Obamacare Republican, and the potential for health care reform to be set back in a state where it has thus far worked well. But it's easy to make to much of that potential. Left out of the breathless, pro-GOP slant of the election's media coverage is the fact that Kentucky's General Assembly is divided between Democrats and Republicans. That arrangement will make any attempts to setback Obamacare difficult, if not impossible. And that will prove to be even more obvious once the words "repeal Obamacare" are replaced by the words "cancel health insurance for half-a-million Kentuckians."
In any event, I don't think the Kentucky results are truly about Obamacare. Rather, I think they're more of a piece with the Houston defeat of the anti-discrimination ordinance. It's worth remembering that Kentucky is the home of Kim Davis, the self-proclaimed "martyr" for anti-gay bigotry who has refused to sign marriage licenses for gay couples. Kentucky, like Texas, is filled with evangelical Christians who are reliable GOP voters--all the more so since this year's Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex marriage to be constitutional.
If there are any lessons for progressives out of this election, they are twofold. First of all, as the fallout from Roe v. Wade has shown over more than four decades, a favorable decision in the Supreme Court does not "settle" a contentious issue once and for all. The question of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights is anything but settled, and the decision by the Court this year has animated evangelical voters to a much greater degree than any of us have previously realized. The realization that we underestimate the extent and the intensity of that anger makes the need for laws at the national level to protect LGBT rights more obvious than ever.
And those laws will never see the light of day unless progressives heed the second lesson of last Tuesday: off-year elections count for as much as presidential elections due. They are the building blocks of consensus on national issues. They are the source of the next generation of progressive leaders. And they will continue to give Republicans an edge in national politics that defies the actual number of national supporters that they have, unless progressive voters finally wake up and do something that they think they have to do only once every four years.
If you care about the future, it's not an option.