Lessons from Arizona

Looking for voter motivations in the Grand Canyon State.


No doubt the biggest issues of the midterm were George W. Bush, Iraq, George Bush, Beltway scandal, the economy, and President Bush. This list still leaves out some important drivers, and non-drivers, of Tuesday's results.

The Republicans' massive emphasis on illegal immigration from South of the border did next to nothing for them at the polls. Candidate after candidate carried big majorities of the anti-illegal immigration vote to defeat, Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and Michael Steele in Maryland being just two.

But the issue was weakest at its core, at its genesis in along the border with Mexico, precisely where the issue should be strongest. Immigration crackdown poster boy J.D. Hayworth went down to defeat in Arizona even though he is not conceding to former Tempe Mayor Harry Mitchell and even though few projected him to be in mortal peril in a comfortable GOP seat.

And over in Arizona-8, the GOP could've scarcely fielded a more anti-illegal immigration candidate than former Minuteman Randy Graf. Yet Graf failed to hold Jim Kolbe's strongly Republican district and was overrun by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords in a blow-out.

At the same time Arizona voters approved a largely symbolic ballot measure declaring English the official language of the state, by a margin of 74 percent to 26 percent. Exit polls showed that even 48 percent of self-described Latino voters supported the measure.

Taken together these results indicate that Republicans badly misread unease about illegal immigration among voters. Once worries about assimilation are off the table, there is little support for the guard towers and mass deportations which formed the under-current of the GOP immigration solution in Congress.

Arizona helped defined the limits and scope of the gay marriage issue. Contrary to much post-election spin, the state did not build a clear fire-break on the gay marriage issue by being the first state to reject a ban on gay marriage. The actual wording of the ballot measure, which came not fully vetted via the state legislature but from Protect Marriage Arizona, explicitly banned any kind of civil union in the state not between a man and a woman as well as "any legal status for unmarried persons that is similar to that of marriage." Missing was the kind of civil union wiggle room built into even the South Carolina constitutional amendment which passed overwhelmingly on Tuesday. 

The South Carolina amendment's explanation stated that "this amendment also makes clear it does not impair rights or benefits extended by this State, or its political subdivisions not arising from other domestic unions, nor does the amendment prohibit private parties from entering into contracts or other legal instruments."

What the Arizona outcome seems to be telling us is that voters prefer the marriage is a man/woman thing with some form of civil or domestic union on the side. The form and scope of that union will likely vary state-to-state. Not coincidentally, this seems to be the direction the courts are also headed on the issue. 

And in passing, it is impossible to look at the tattered remains of Barry Goldwater's GOP in today's Arizona and conclude that Sen. John McCain now stands like a colossus on the national political scene. Yet here is The Washington Times headline, "McCain gains political capital in elections."

That conclusion seems to be totally based upon McCain's willingness to step up to the plate and blame the 2006 result on Bush's unpopularity. McCain immediately went on a TV offensive last night to position himself as the solution to all Republican woe, the '08 fix to the '06 breakdown. 

Yet McCain could not even help candidates like Graf, whom McCain endorsed late in the race with Graf trailing badly and despite their differences on immigration. That McCain's backing meant so little to his home-state GOPers again indicates McCain's weakness with the Republican rank-and-file that would have to nominate him for president. This small detail is repeatedly overlooked by network gabfest bookers and '08 handicappers. But do not expect that to stop the TV blitz.

Finally, Americans will get a very quick check on just how much out of practice the Dems might be after 12 years in the wilderness. A smart and clever party would immediately make plans for some mumbo-jumbo, sleight-of-hand action in Congress that would ditch their gloomy election rhetoric and begin to take credit for a strong and vibrant economy. 

The actual economy is fairly booming, with low unemployment, low inflation, and relatively low interest rates. Only $2 a gallon gas tells voters that things are not Pareto optimal, and they already blame George Bush for that anyway. Only a party with a death wish would embark on some macro-economic heavy lifting right now and thus supply a dazed GOP with something to rally against.

Yet, as incredible as it might seem, America may well have two stupid parties locked in needlessly mortal political combat for the foreseeable future. Hooray?