Theme of the 2010 Elections: A Return to “Checks and Balance”
On November 3rd voters went to the polls to fill vacancies on the state Supreme Court, Superior Court and Commonwealth Court. The outcome was that Republicans won 6 of 7 contests, including the elevation of Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin to the state’s highest court. The fact that Republicans prevailed is significant because Pennsylvania now boasts 1.2 million more registered Democrats than Republicans, Republicans were outspent by Democrats in these contests and the state has become more Democratic in recent years as evidenced by Barack Obama’s 10-point margin last year over John McCain. Democrats are the majority party now, and control both the governor’s office and the State House of Representatives. Republicans control only the state senate.
This same dynamic of voting against the “party in power” also played out in elections in New Jersey and Virginia this year. Elections for governor were on the ballot in both states and voters again chose Republicans. In New Jersey, normally a reliably “blue” state, voters ousted Democratic Governor Jon Corzine by electing GOP challenger and former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie on a message of bringing change to New Jersey. His victory was hailed as a return to a system of checks and balances since Democrats have total control of state government in Trenton including the State Senate and State Assembly. In Virginia, voters chose Republican Bob McDonnell over Democrat Craig Deeds despite the fact that the state recently elected a Democratic governor and United States senator. Republicans also picked up seats in the Democratic-controlled Virginia State Assembly. President Obama carried both New Jersey and Virginia in 2008.
The impact of these elections has clear consequences for the upcoming 2010 elections in Pennsylvania. In our state over the last few decades the political pendulum has swung back and forth between Republicans and Democrats at all levels. For instance, from eight years of Democrat governors to eight years of Republican ones; from a 12-to-7 GOP-controlled congressional delegation after the 2002 election, to a 12-to-7 Democratic-controlled congressional delegation after the 2008 elections. This back-and-forth between the parties holds true even in the state legislature in Harrisburg where Democrats captured control of the State House by 28 votes in 2006 after a close vote recount in a Chester County seat. Similarly, Republicans won control of the State House back in 1978 by 21 voters after winning a vote recount in a Somerset County seat.
All this seems to indicate that 2010 will again be the Republicans’ turn. The theme of many GOP candidates will be the message of returning to a system of “checks and balances”. Our polling this year confirms the “checks and balances” message is resonating, where by an astonishing 60 to 30 percent margin voters in Pennsylvania said they would rather vote for a candidate for state representative who “can be a check and balance to Governor Rendell and the Democratic agenda in Harrisburg”, rather than a candidate who “will help Governor Rendell and the Democrats pass their agenda in Harrisburg”. Support for the “checks and balances” argument includes 80% of Republicans and even 44% of Democrats. Our polling in several competitive congressional districts shows a similar pattern, where voters prefer a candidate for congress who will not be a rubber stamp for President Obama’s policies. Even Democratic U.S. Senator Arlen Specter is feeling the heat, because in our recent poll only 31% of the state’s voters said he deserved to be reelected in 2010, while 59% said it was time to give a new person a chance. This poll sent such shock waves across the country that it became the topic of discussion by conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh on his radio program the day after it broke.
But Republicans would be foolish to celebrate early. If the economy makes a strong comeback by the middle of next year, Democrat candidates at both the federal and state level will be able to say things improved under their watch, and that their policies and programs were the correct medicine to fix an ailing economy that most voters readily admit was largely inherited. If however, the perception among Americans is that things are not getting much better, and unemployment continues to hover near the 10 percent mark, Republican candidates could use the “checks and balances” theme as a successful strategy to remind the public that one-party domination is not the best way out of the economic mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. If this happens, using history as a guide the smart bet would be to put your money on the GOP.