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Why 2012 election will be very close

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
updated 8:22 PM EST, Wed November 9, 2011
Union supporters fought back against Gov. John Kasich's bill limiting rights of public employee unions in Ohio.
Union supporters fought back against Gov. John Kasich's bill limiting rights of public employee unions in Ohio.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Gergen: Two messages can be drawn from Tuesday 's votes
  • He says voters in some places struck back at GOP for going too far
  • Democrats, unions succeeded in overturning Ohio law on public employees
  • Gergen: The votes sent signals that next year's election will be very close

Editor's note: Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter: @David_Gergen

(CNN) -- Amidst the welter of election results from voting yesterday, two conclusions seem pretty clear:

First, an ancient rule of American politics still holds: Do not overreach. In both Ohio and Mississippi, Republicans went too far toward the extreme end of the spectrum and voters rose up to smite them.

The clearest example was Ohio, where Republican Gov. John Kasich took on the costs of public employee unions as a way to balance the state budget and strengthen the quality of K-12 education. This is a popular approach among Republican leaders these days and in the hands of a savvy political leader like Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, it can also win widespread voter support.

David Gergen
David Gergen

But Republicans in Ohio overplayed their hand: In a bill they passed early this year, GOP state legislators persuaded Kasich to include first responders, police and firemen among those whose benefits and bargaining rights would be cut. That turned out to be a disastrous mistake, as the general public has large reservoirs of respect for men and women who protect them. (Duh).

Labor unions saw their opening and amassed a large number of signatures to put a referendum on the ballot yesterday calling for repeal of the legislation. The unions, supported by the Obama White House, then poured money and resources into a campaign against the bill.

Altogether it is estimated that labor spent some $30 million to defeat the bill, about twice as much as business community and conservatives spent in support. Kasich, who is otherwise regarded as one of the bright lights of the GOP, was also seen as bullheaded in his campaign approach, vowing to run over his opponents.

The result was a stinging defeat for the GOP in yesterday's referendum: the public union bill was rejected by some 61% of voters at last count. Had there not been so much of an overreach, observers on the ground believe that Kasich & Co. might well have won.

Not all was lost for the GOP in Ohio: In a campaign that attracted less notice, conservatives won a victory of similar proportions that would ban mandates requiring everyone to secure health insurance. Although partially symbolic, the vote was widely seen as a rejection of Obamacare by Ohio. Still, the public union bill was the big enchilada -- and its defeat has important implications for 2012.

In Mississippi, pro-life conservatives placed a "personhood" amendment to the state constitution on the ballot. Mississippi is one of the most conservative states in the country and both the GOP and Democratic candidates for governor endorsed the initiative. But as others have noted, opponents apparently were able to make the case that the initiative was so broadly drawn that it would ban some contraceptives and in-vitro fertilization and might even lead to criminal investigations of women who suffered miscarriages. In other words, it went too far. And down it went yesterday in a surprising defeat.

These results and others point to a second general conclusion about voting yesterday: the general elections next fall are shaping up to be highly competitive and very tough. Go back to Ohio for a moment: The state's economy is unusually sluggish and Obama has become unpopular. In the off-year elections of 2010, Republicans seized five Congressional seats out of Democratic hands.

Ohio was shaping up as a strong potential pick-up for Republicans in the presidential race of 2012. But yesterday's referendums, drawing a heavy turnout of voters, sent a clear message that progressives are still willing and able to fight back. Color Ohio as a toss-up for 2012.

A parallel observation might be drawn from results in Virginia: Buoyed by the 2010 off-year elections, Republicans hold the state House there and hoped yesterday to sweep the state Senate. As of the moment, with votes still being counted, it appears that at best, they will secure a 20-20 tie in the Senate.

Or take Arizona: The man considered the architect of the tough laws against immigration went down in a recall fight.

To be sure, there were other areas where Republicans did well yesterday -- as in Mississippi, where they easily held on to the governor's office that Haley Barbour is vacating. But overall, the elections reinforce the impression that the huge tea party tide we saw in 2010 is still powerful but is receding somewhat.

We may be returning to something close to a 50-50 nation -- and that means rock-'em, sock-'em campaigns over the coming year.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

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