Election night was bittersweet for Andrew Moylan. The young government affairs manager of the conservative National Taxpayers Union was watching returns in Asheville, N.C., with fellow attendees of the conservative State Policy Network’s annual meeting. Early in the night, the gubernatorial races in Virginia and then New Jersey went to the Republicans. Moylan, however, was watching the returns on two anti-tax, anti-spending ballot measures in Maine and Washington. Those weren’t turning out so well.
“I care a lot less about Republicans than I do about policy,” Moylan said. “So it was depressing to watch those numbers come in.”
The numbers broke hard against conservatives and libertarians. The Maine Tax Relief Initiative–Question 4–would have placed new limits on state and local government spending and required voter approval to go over those limits. It failed by 21 points and a margin of more than 100,000 votes. Washington Initiative 1033 would have placed limits on local spending and directed surplus tax revenue back to Washingtonians, as property tax rebates. It failed by 11 points and a similar margin of around 100,000 votes.
One week after the election, the results in Maine and Washington are giving some conservative and libertarian activists pause–and giving some liberals hope–on the question of whether America is turning right in reaction to the Democratic agenda. Voters in those states, argued the liberal columnist E.J. Dionne, “decided not to be part of a laboratory experiment being pushed by the Beltway Right.” For their part, members of the “Beltway Right” did not express any great surprise at the results.
“They were massively outspent in both states,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, “and it always takes a few tries to win these things.”
Activists inside and outside of Maine and Washington pointed to both of those reasons for the defeats. But some of them wrestled with the contrast between these losses and the rise of the anti-tax, small government Tea Party movement. Conservative and libertarian activists are more visible and more organized than in any time in recent memory. Why weren’t they able to buck the expected opposition of labor unions and capitalize on what, they argue, is roiling voter discontent at high taxes and wasteful government? Some suggested that the nascent movement was focused more on the politics of Washington, D.C. than on local politics, and that this might be an error. Others admitted that Question 4 and Initiative 1033 may have gone too far.
“When you’re swinging for the fences,” said Tim Eyman, the key organizer of Initiative 1033, “it’s not out of line for voters to say no. What is the statistic about Babe Ruth? He had the most home runs, and he had the most strike-outs. I wouldn’t read too much into this, other than we were fighting for an audacious tax-limiting proposal, and there limits to what voters willing to do, regardless of how out of control they think their government is.”
Eyman, a longtime ballot initiative organizers in Washington, had a lot to lose from the failure of Initiative 1033. He took out a second mortgage on his house for $250,000, providing more than a third of the total funding for the campaign–the rest of it came locally, from tapped-out small donors. And while he did tap into the Tea Party movement for support, he didn’t find much money or much organization ready to compete with the eventual $3.5 million marshaled by the initiative’s opponents.
“The recession doesn’t effect tax-takers,” said Eyman, pointing to the Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association, both of whom opposed the initiative. “Taxpayers are having a difficult time. So the money wasn’t there.”
Kevin Morse, an organizer with Olympia, Washington’s Tea Party group, said that Eyman had attended a June 27 Tea Party meeting and enlisted activists to put the initiative on the ballot–it made the deadline, and the target for signatures, two weeks later. In the months between then and the election, said Morse, the activists simply spent more time organizing and putting their emphasis on health care legislation, “because that’s where the press coverage goes.” Proving his point, Morse spent Monday afternoon protesting Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at an appearance in the state.
“That $3.5 million the other side spent had a big impact, too,” said Morse. “If you need more proof, that’s why big money owns D.C. right now.”
Activists in both states pointed to the fearsome fundraising advantage of the initiatives’ opponents as reasons why they never really had a chance. In Maine, Question 4 backer Tarren Bragdon claimed that the measure’s opponents had a 12-1 cash advantage that they used to drive down support. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican gubernatorial hopeful for 2010 who worked on the Question 4 campaign, personally put up a quarter of its budget.
“The results were not a negative reflection on activists here in Maine,” he said. “We were outspent and we were outmaneuvered by interests from outside the state.”
Still, some of last week’s election results cut against the idea that money can make or break elections. In New Jersey, first-time candidate Chris Christie ousted Gov. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) despite taking public financing and being outspent roughly 3-1. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg dramatically under-performed in the polls and nearly lost to Democratic candidate Bill Thompson despite outspending Thompson by a 16-1 margin. And while anti-tax initiatives are often battered by better-funded opposition campaigns, they often do better than Question 4 and Initiative 1033. In 2006, by many measures a better election year for liberals, a nearly identical measure in Maine failed by only 8 points. All of this pointed anti-tax activists to two other explanations–a lack of grassroots support and a smear campaign by opponents.
I was surprised that the this movement against higher taxes, against higher spending, was not more focused on these measures,” said Paul Jacob, a longtime ballot initiative activist who now leads the Citizens in Charge Foundation. “I’m surprised wasn’t more effort to back them. There’s just been more attention paid to Congress, and people gravitate to where the attention is.”
The NTU’s Moylan paid some credit to the campaign initiative opponents had run in Maine and Washington, giving voters a dark history lesson on the Colorado Taxpayer Bill of Rights. That measure, passed in 1992, mandated that any tax increase that produced revenue higher than expected from the combined rate of population increase and inflation would be subject to a voter referendum. In the boom years of the 1990s, it was a trend-setter. But in 2000 and 2005, after the restrictions produced education funding cuts, voters did away with most of Colorado’s TABOR.
“The ‘No’ campaigns hammered away on Colorado,” said the NTU’s Andrew Moylan. “But when you start to dig into the history in Colorado, TABOR was not the cause of their problems.”
Anti-tax activists had a problem, said Moylan. Until they passed more tax-limiting initiatives, it would be tough to prove that they worked.
“If we had other states that had passed something like this, that were running smoothly and well, we’d have an easier argument to make. The other side has a 10-second talking point. We have a ten-minute explanation. Elections are about the 10-second talking points.”
David Weigel writes for the Washington Independent, the Colorado Independent’s sister site in D.C.