Wary voters were cautious

With Washington’s liberal voting laws, election night parties can become sleepovers with slow cookers, s’mores and horror stories. A long night turns into days of waiting.

A week after the election, Proposition 1, SeaTac’s nationally watched $15 minimum wage (and more) initiative, remains undecided. Census takers going door-to-door could have resolved the thing in a few hours.

A still evolving Seattle City Council race could result in the city having its first acknowledged Socialist councilmember in decades. We do know some outcomes. Republican Jan Angel won the pivotal state Senate race in the 26th District. The losing candidate told the Seattle Times he was going grab a pizza, a beer and go to the movies with his kids. Lucky man.

Those still in the game look for meaning in the returns. They examine voters’ partisan preferences and decisions on ballot initiatives for portents of the political future. A handful of elections, here and across the country, provide some clues.

Angel’s win increases the Senate majority coalition’s margin and may be seen as confirmation of their fiscally conservative reform agenda. It strengthens the majority’s control in the important 2014 election year session.

Nationally, Chis Christie’s decisive re-election bolsters the New Jersey governor’s presidential prospects. His supporters trumpet Christie’s bipartisan appeal as a reason for Republicans to distance themselves from the hard right and return to a big tent strategy. Detractors note that blue state Republicans don’t appeal to conservative primary voters nationally and don’t pick up many Democrats in the general. As New Jersey goes, so goes, well, New Jersey. Christie may be sui generis, but his victory keeps him in play.

Virginia’s gubernatorial contest is more telling. Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli closed the gap against dealmaker and Clinton friend Terry McAuliffe, whose victory failed to cover the spread. The Cuccinelli surge coincided with the Obamacare debacle. McAuliffe’s underwhelming win increased Democrats fears of a 2014 backlash.

In the election’s least surprising result, Seattle and New York City elected liberal mayors to succeed liberal mayors.

A handful of ballot issues deserve attention. Washington voters defeated an initiative to label genetically engineered food and another to tilt the initiative process toward signature gatherers and ballot-measure entrepreneurs. Both led in September polling. After last year’s California GE labeling loss, Washington’s decisive rejection represents a setback for a movement in search of a rationale. The initiative on initiatives also lacked justification and may be seen as a rebuke to promoter Tim Eyman.

SeaTac’s Proposition 1 led narrowly at the weekend, but it’s too close to call. Regardless of how the measure fares, union organizers and their camp followers pledge to bring the $15 wage proposal to Seattle in 2014. The city’s demographics and airport economy make it a special case with limited predictive value. Regardless, both sides will mine the 5,000 SeaTac votes for guidance in coming campaigns.

Colorado’s 2-1 defeat of a $1 billion a year income tax hike for schools may be more telling. Out-of-state interests poured millions of dollars into the state and down the drain. The defeat matches Washington voters’ similarly decisive rejection of a millionaire’s income tax in 2010. We’ll doubtless see a reprise here. But the Colorado experience suggests that unions should temper their enthusiasms. In Denver, four reform school board candidates won despite union opposition. The election demonstrates that voters believe that improving education requires more than just a funding boost.

Even as New Jersey voters re-elected Christie, they adopted a constitutional amendment he opposed, raising the minimum wage to $8.25 and indexing it to inflation. Earlier this year Christie vetoed a wage hike to $8.50.

Overall, voters demonstrated caution. They remain uneasy about the economy and reluctant to raise taxes without knowing that the money will produce tangible performance gains. While health care reform has heightened apprehension about big government, incremental moves — like the New Jersey minimum wage — can win.

Polarization remains a problem, but enough persuadables exist to make the difference. Despite early leads, our two statewide initiatives lost handily and the SeaTac measure tightened to a draw.

Campaigns that inform and persuade can overcome initial biases. That’s particularly true when, as now, voters have learned to treat promises of change with healthy skepticism.

Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council.

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