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Statehouses ride GOP wave

Republican wins portend policy changes on health care and education and create GOP stars

With these elections, more governor’s mansions will be in GOP hands than at any other time in nearly 100 years. Republican stars were born, with implications for the 2016 presidential nominating contest and beyond. And legislative chambers in as many as six states have shifted from Democratic to GOP control, portending changes in power that could affect policies on “Obamacare,” academic standards known as Common Core and other issues.

Voters punished Democrats on every level and in unexpected places on Tuesday — an illustration of just how big, broad and brutal this GOP wave was.

“What surprised me was that instead of general anti-incumbent sentiment, where the incumbents of both parties lost, this clearly had a single direction — against Democrats,” said Louis Jacobson, deputy editor of PolitiFact, the fact-checking website affiliated with The Tampa Bay Times, whose coverage has focused on statewide races. “You had some very, very vulnerable GOP governors who survived, people who were very polarizing and controversial, and they all won. Governor’s races are really generally pretty state-centric. For a wave to sweep through an office that is pretty localized is pretty striking.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Maine Gov. Paul LePage and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback were among the GOP governors who pulled out wins despite unusually low approval ratings. In addition, voters stunned the nation by choosing Republican Larry Hogan over Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown for Maryland governor and ousting Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in favor of Republican Bruce Rauner. Democrats also lost gubernatorial contests in Massachusetts and Arkansas.

While it will take some time to assess the full impact of the elections on state legislatures. The West Virginia House, the Nevada Senate, the New York Senate, the Maine Senate, the Colorado Senate and the New Hampshire House all flipped to Republican control. Nevada’s Assembly, in Democratic hands for nearly 30 years, wound up in Republican hands too.

Those outcomes throw into question the willingness of new and re-elected GOP governors to cooperate with the federal government on issues such as setting up state health insurance exchanges and accepting Medicaid expansion funding that is part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.” Also a hot-button issue was Common Core, part of the U.S. government’s effort to standardize student learning expectations — an idea that once had strong bipartisan support but has in recent years become unpopular among Republicans who describe it as a federal intrusion.

Democrats tried to soften the blow by reiterating the historical truth that the party in the White House almost always suffers losses in the sixth year a president is in office. Yet that trend doesn’t generally extend so deep into state landscapes.

‘You see voters in many of those states that have Republican governors say, ‘We think the state is on the right track.’’

Jason Stverak

president, the Franklin Center

Republican governors in Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio all kept their jobs for second terms. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has now won three votes in four years, including his initial 2010 election and a 2012 recall election, bolstered his front-runner status for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 by beating challenger Mary Burke by 5 percentage points after polls predicted it would be a nail biter.

The feeble victory of incumbent New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — he received about 54 percent of the vote against a little-known opponent — may spell doom for his presidential prospects, Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer said. While Cuomo’s intentions for 2016 are unclear, particularly given the expectation that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will run, Greer said his failure to win in a landslide hurts his national chances.

Looking even farther out on the political horizon, Republicans were excited to see the election of George P. Bush, the 38-year-old grandson of President George H.W. Bush and son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to Texas land commissioner. The post has been a springboard to higher office.

The gubernatorial loss in Obama’s adopted home state of Illinois was especially crushing for Democrats because it is the first time since the 19th century that an incumbent governor from a president’s party and home state has been ousted.

“You’ve seen repudiation of Democratic governors across the country,” said Jason Stverak, president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which oversees a network of conservative online news outlets around the nation. “And you see voters in many of those states that have Republican governors say, ‘We think the state is on the right track.’ That worked well for Walker in Wisconsin, [Rick] Snyder in Michigan, [John] Kasich in Ohio.”

Deep into the night and early morning, a few small saving graces emerged for Democrats. In the races for governor in Connecticut and Colorado, the Democratic incumbents appeared to hold on despite lagging earlier. And Rhode Island elected its first female governor, centrist Democrat Gina Raimondo, who has bucked unions — a win that branded her, in a bleak cycle, a possible rising star.

Early on Tuesday evening, the victory of incumbent Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire and Democrat Tom Wolf over Pennsylvania’s GOP Gov. Tom Corbett were deceptive bits of good news for Democrats who were bracing for a bad night. Greer said Keystone State voters were punishing Corbett for his role in the sex-abuse scandal at Penn State. “He was tied to a lot of the local inner workings of that situation, and many voters were mobilized to get him out,” Greer said. “His involvement was called into question.”

While Republicans enjoyed astounding electoral triumphs, voters in several states expressed big support for some key Democratic issues stymied in Congress and state legislatures, namely raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana. Arkansas voters, who booted an incumbent Democratic governor and U.S. senator, voted 2 to 1 to raise the state minimum wage to $8.50 per hour by 2017. Alaska voters raised theirs to $9.75 an hour, Illinois’ will go to $10 per hour on Jan. 1, Nebraska’s will rise to $9 per hour by 2016, and South Dakota’s will increase to $8.50 next year. In every case but South Dakota’s, the increases received 60 percent or more of the vote. Also of interest were marijuana legalization measures, with Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., voters approving recreational pot. More than 57 percent of Florida voters supported legalization of medicinal marijuana, but the measure required 60 percent to pass.

Other ballot measure results of note were hard to fit into the narrative of the night. Maine voters rejected limits on bear hunting tactics, and Michigan voters nixed two measures passed by the GOP legislature that allowed for the hunting of gray wolves. The gambling industry shrugged off its biggest challenge in years, an effort in Massachusetts to ban casino development, but Californians voted 2 to 1 to deny tribal casinos the ability to build casinos on nonreservation lands. In Oregon voters narrowly rejected a measure that would have required certain food products to be labeled if they were produced with or contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Voters in Maui County, Hawaii, however, narrowly approved a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically engineered crops — a significant development because Monsanto and Dow Chemical develop new GMO varieties there and spent $8 million to influence the county’s 160,000 residents.

‘As I look more carefully over the rest of the results nationwide, it will probably become increasingly more depressing. It just means we have to wake up tomorrow and work harder.’

Kitty Kurth

Democratic strategist

Diversity came in many forms on Tuesday. GOP Govs. Susanna Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, both Hispanic, were re-elected in purple states, in a hopeful sign for Republicans seeking to improve their appeal to Latino voters. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is of Indian descent, handily won re-election as well.

Texas’ governor-elect, Greg Abbott, is a paraplegic who has used a wheelchair since being crushed by a falling tree while he was jogging in 1984. In Michigan voters elected a blind attorney, Richard Bernstein, to the state Supreme Court.  Massachusetts voters selected the nation’s first openly gay attorney general, Maura Healey. (It had seemed possible Maine voters would make Democrat Mike Michaud the first openly gay man to be elected governor, but he fell short.)

One case study in just how horrible the night was for Democrats came in Nevada, where Democrats have a substantial voter registration advantage but Republicans outnumbered them in the crucial — and usually Democratic-dominated — early voting period.

The GOP wave flooded the Silver State desert, washing out the entire bench of Democratic candidates for statewide and federal offices. Outgoing U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is up for re-election in 2016, had hoped that his hand-picked Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, Assemblywoman Luci Flores, would win and thus discourage Sandoval from running against him in 2016, for fear of turning the governorship over to the opposing party. Not only was Flores crushed 2 to 1, but Republicans also appeared to be on track to win every other statewide office. Among the Democratic casualties were current Secretary of State Ross Miller, who ran for attorney general, and current Treasurer Kate Marshall, who ran for secretary of state. They were seen as possible Senate rivals for Sandoval in 2016 if Reid, 74, opts to retire.

“It was a surprising night,” said Kitty Kurth, a longtime Democratic strategist who has worked for Vice President Joe Biden and others. “As I look more carefully over the rest of the results nationwide, it will probably become increasingly more depressing. It just means we have to wake up tomorrow and work harder.”

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