What We Learned On Election Day

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Deciphering off-year elections is like reading the first chapter in a novel. You wonder what's foreshadowing of bigger things to come and what's just a false clue designed to throw you off the track. California elected a Republican action hero as its governor. Now Mississippi has elected a Republican Washington Lobbyist as its governor. Good for Bush in 2004? Or is it a positive sign for outsiders, whether they're Republicans or not?

I think it's the former. On the good-for-Bush side, you have to be impressed that the Republicans have made steady gains during his tenure in office, picking up Congressional seats and legislatures and now these two governorships. Does Haley Barbour, the governor-elect of Mississippi, bode well for outsiders? I doubt it. He is about as much of a political novice as Karl Rove. He was the political director in the Reagan White House and a Washington fixture for more than two decades as a lobbyist and TV talking head. Barbour is an iconic Republican, the same way Sen John Edwards, a trial lawyer, is the iconic Democrat.

Republicans also picked up the governorship in Kentucky for the first time in more than 30 years. That shouldn't have been too surprising. The current governor had an embarrassing affair with a state contractor and the slogan of governor-elect, Ernie Fletcher, was to "clean up the mess in Frankfort," the state capital. But it was more than local issues at issue in Kentucky. It's a good sign for Bush that both Fletcher and Barbour invited him to the state while national Democrats from Ted Kennedy to Hillary Clinton to the 10 presidential candidates were kept at bay by the Democrats running in Kentucky and Mississippi.

The only comfort for Democrats is that out-of-power parties won big in the 2002 governors races, leading to such bizarre spectacles as Democrats taking the governor's mansions in Wyoming and Oklahoma while Massachusetts elected a Mormon Republican businessman as governor. The Fletcher and Barbour victories were part of a troubling wave for fiscally-challenged governors.

There were a few other clues yesterday about national trends. Gambling initiatives failed in Maine and Colorado. The proliferation of gambling is an extraordinary social development of the last two decades and there's some sign that its run its course. After being told that gambling was an engine of economic development, voters are beginning to wonder whether it's worth the social cost and whether it really does lead to prosperity.

Democrats broke a 20-20 tie in the New Jersey senate, suggesting, perhaps, that the Northeast is still a Democratic stronghold. And in Philadelphia, a Republican challenge to Mayor John Street fell way short. In San Francisco, the most conservative Democrat, the sponsor of an initiative to reduce panhandlers, seemed poised to win — suggesting that Giuliani-style governance remains popular in liberal bastions. In New York City, mayor Mike Bloombergs effort to replace the city's primary system with the kind of non-partisan slates found in other cities got trounced. It does not bode well for his reelection chances in 2005.

But who knows? These are just early chapters.