The dominant storyline of the 2014 cycle has it that we’re seeing a referendum on liberal governance — most clearly embodied by the the influence, real and exaggerated, that the Affordable Care Act is having on the battle for control of the Senate. But one of the big stories of the cycle is that conservative governance is also on the ballot this fall.
It is not an exaggeration to say that three of the most important state-level experiments in conservative reform — all of which were outgrowths of the 2010 Republican triumph fueled by the Tea Party insurgency of Obama’s first term — are all, to varying degrees, standing in judgment before voters.
This is on display most obviously in governors races: Scott Walker’s hard-fought reelection battle in Wisconsin, and Sam Brownback’s deep travails in Kansas. But it’s also in evidence in the North Carolina Senate race, which has unexpectedly centered on state House Speaker Thom Tillis’ role in helping engineer a conservative revolution in Raleigh.
A new Marquette College poll finds Walker leading challenger Mary Burke by 50-45 among likely voters, though the polling average still suggests a very close race. Walker’s reelection is probably the most crucial for conservatives, since they’ve been lionizing Walker ever since the rollback of collective bargaining rights for public employees turned him into Public Enemy Number One in the eyes of national unions. As Byron York recently explained, Walker’s reelection campaign is as important as any Senate race, because for conservatives, a victory would “validate and solidify” Walker’s union-busting, “while a loss would undermine it.”
In Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback — who, like Walker, was elected amid the 2010 conservative triumph — has undertaken what he calls a “real live experiment” in red state governance, one that conservatives held aloft as a “proving ground for the proposition that cutting taxes on the affluent would unleash prosperity.” As John Judis explains, Brownback has effectively pushed through an “ideologically pure agenda” that bears the imprint of the Koch brothers and “three decades of right wing agitation.” The result: A flood of red ink and cutbacks to government that have shocked and alienated moderate Republicans, leaving Brownback fighting for his political life.
Meanwhile, a new Suffolk poll finds Senator Pat Roberts trailing independent Greg Orman by five points among likely voters, which could mean Roberts is “collateral damage” from the Kansas experiment gone awry, though it’s hard to know how related they are.
The interesting twist to this story comes in North Carolina — in a Senate race. Senator Kay Hagan was supposed to be toast in this Mitt Romney state because of the unpopularity of the President and his signature domestic achievement. But to a surprising degree, this contest has ended up turning on conservative state-level policies, thanks to a legislature that has pushed through “one of the most far-reaching conservative agendas in the country.”
One key subplot here has been the surprising emergence of education as a key issue and symbol of conservative overreach — in North Carolina, but elsewhere as well.
Kay Hagan’s latest ad slamming Tillis draws a very sharp contrast between education cuts enacted by the North Carolina legislature and her support for investing more in education — and for student loan relief — as a way of securing opportunity. Indeed, Dems have attacked Tillis for months over education, but crucially, they have also linked those cuts to the legislature’s tax cuts for the wealthy. Hagan appears to have a small but durable lead, and a North Carolina Democrat tells me research indicates voters are very much aware of two things about Tillis: He cut education and cut taxes for the rich. In other words, Dem efforts to make this race all about the priorities underlying North Carolina’s conservative revolution may be working.
Meanwhile, education cuts are a key reason moderate Republicans are recoiling from Brownback’s experiment in conservative governance in Kansas.
The bigger story here is summed up in a great piece by Ed Kilgore:
Thanks to ideological polarization and gridlock at the national level, state governments are often where the action is. And a confluence of Republican power and conservative money at the state level is coordinating a wave of right-wing activism that has become both a substitute and a stimulus for national policy… In 36 states — the largest number since 1952 — one party controls the governorship and both branches of the legislature…Activists, especially conservatives, are using this power to adopt a nationalized agenda in state legislatures.
Whoever wins in Wisconsin, Kansas, and North Carolina, it would probably be a mistake to read too much into what it says about public opinion and conservatism, since political races turn on so many factors. Indeed we may end up with something of a split verdict. But it’s striking that this cycle is shaping up as something of a test not just of the policies of the national party in possession of the White House, but of conservative governance as well.