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Initiative Results Hearten Liberals, Conservatives

First of two parts

Conventional wisdom has it that Election Day 2004 was a wipeout for Democrats. And when you’re talking about the top of the ticket — president, Senate and House — it’s hard to disagree. [IMGCAP(1)]

But further down the ballot, the results were more mixed. Before Out There goes on hiatus — the column will mostly disappear until the 2006 election season heats up — we’ll recap results in gubernatorial races, ballot initiatives, state legislative contests, state attorney general races and state supreme court elections.


A few months ago, Out There spotlighted the history of stunning volatility in recent governors’ races.

Prior to Election Day, 62 percent of the previous 42 gubernatorial races had resulted in an ouster of the incumbent party — a rate more than triple the rate of state Senate takeovers and 10 to 20 times the rate of Congressional-seat turnover. Most experts attributed this to voter discontent over budget shortfalls that peaked in 2001 and 2002.

This year, the state budget picture improved, and the gubernatorial ouster rate consequently fell a bit. But it hardly reverted to zero.

In the 11 governor’s races this year, five incumbents were re-elected, and Utah Republicans retained the seat of outgoing Gov. Olene Walker. One race remains too close to call — the contest in Washington state between Christine Gregoire (D) and Dino Rossi (R) for a seat that has been in Democratic hands for 20 years.

But in the remaining four states, the sitting governor, or the retiring governor’s party, was ousted.

In Indiana, Republican Mitch Daniels ousted Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan, while in New Hampshire, Democrat John Lynch defeated Republican Gov. Craig Benson. In Missouri, Secretary of State Matt Blunt (R) defeated state Auditor Claire McCaskill (D), who had become the nominee by defeating sitting Gov. Bob Holden in the Democratic primary. And in Montana, farmer Brian Schweitzer (D) beat Secretary of State Bob Brown (R) in the race to fill the seat being vacated by GOP Gov. Judy Martz.

If Gregoire ends up winning, the Democratic-Republican split in the governorships will be exactly what it was before: 28 Republicans, 22 Democrats. If Rossi wins, the Republicans will net one seat.

Either way, the results — not counting the undecided Washington state race — bring the one-cycle ouster rate for governors to 30 out of 52 races, or 58 percent. That’s down slightly from what it was before Election Night, but it’s still a strikingly high number.

Heading into 2006, the question to ask is whether the dozens of governors who rode into office on the anti-incumbency wave of 2002 are about to be punished themselves, or whether voters will appreciate their generally steady hands over the past four years. Most notably, will fish-out-of-water governors such as the Democrats serving in Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming and the Republicans holding office in Connecticut, Hawaii and Maryland get a green light for another term from voters?

Ballot Initiatives

As everybody now knows, one of the biggest stories of Election Night was the sweeping victory by 11 measures to ban same-sex marriage. The same-sex marriage ban in Ohio may have played a role in shaping turnout in the crucial battleground state, even if the other 10 measures had only a limited impact on the presidential race. But other conservative measures found success at the ballot box — as did liberal measures in many places.

Voters in Arizona passed an initiative designed to squeeze illegal immigration, while California voters sided with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and rejected a proposed loosening of the state’s “three-strikes” sentencing law. California voters also approved a landmark measure that requires DNA samples to be taken from convicts and crime suspects.

Florida voters easily passed a measure that requires parental notice for minors seeking an abortion. Oregon voters approved a far-reaching “takings” measure that requires government compensation for limiting private development rights. And animal-welfare advocates failed to pass measures in Alaska and Maine that would have banned bear-baiting.

Despite these losses, liberals still had a strong Election Night. In Nevada and Florida, voters overwhelmingly passed measures to raise the state minimum wage, while voters in California passed a measure to fund stem-cell research.

Montana voters rejected a measure that would have overturned a previously passed initiative banning the use of cyanide in open-pit mining. And voters in Washington state backed a measure that bars the Energy Department from sending any additional nuclear waste to the Hanford nuclear site until the highly contaminated facility is cleaned up.

In Colorado, voters approved a landmark measure that requires utilities to produce 10 percent of their electricity using renewable fuels. Three states — Colorado, Oklahoma and Montana — approved hikes in cigarette taxes, while voters in Maine rejected a cap on property taxes. And California voters overwhelmingly approved a measure that requires more openness in government.

Electoral-reform initiatives, the subject of a previous Out There column, had a mixed day. Washington state voters approved a Louisiana-style “top-two” primary format, but California voters sided with the major parties — and against Schwarzenegger — by rejecting a similar plan.

Alaska voters approved a measure to require a special election for Senate vacancies, even as they re-elected Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), the woman whose controversial elevation prompted the initiative in the first place. And the single most-watched initiative in the nation — a measure that would have split Colorado’s Electoral College vote — fizzled.

State Legislatures

The biggest triumphs for the Democratic Party on Election Day occurred in the state legislatures.

Both parties proved that they were able to pick up legislative chambers on favorable turf — Republicans in Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma and Tennessee, and Democrats in Oregon, Vermont and Washington. But only Democrats showed that they could pick up chambers in alien territory.

Colorado Democrats shocked observers by picking up both chambers of the Legislature. The Democrats also seized at least one chamber in Montana (and possibly forced a tie in the other, depending on a recount). The party took over one chamber in North Carolina and forced a tie in Iowa — and also held on to endangered majorities in several red states, including a chamber each in Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Democrats also made unexpected gains in the Minnesota House, putting the party within a seat of tying the Republican-held chamber.

Observers credited increased Democratic turnout and strong efforts to leverage the party’s advantages, such as a favorable redistricting map in Montana, for the gains.

Measured by legislative seats, Democrats netted more than 70 in this election — enough to turn a slight deficit in seats nationwide into a slight advantage. Nationally, the Republicans still hold a slight lead in state Houses and an equal number of state Senates as the Democrats. But on an awful Election Day, the Democrats will take what they can get.

Coming Monday: state attorneys general and judicial races.

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