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With the 2012 elections exactly a year away, it seems a particularly good time to assess the political environment and try to put next year's race into a context that might be helpful for small-business operators. Despite being an "off-year," 2011 saw a number of electoral contests that may tell us a great deal about what 2012 may look like. Under the guise of "past is prologue," what can we learn from the electoral outcomes this year that can be predictive of next year?
First of all, let's take the temperature of the electorate. 2010 saw the emergence of the Tea Party phenomenon and its maturation, despite its lack of organization, into a meaningful political force, especially within the Republican Party. Since then, the Tea Party has proven it was not a fad; it is a storm that continues to gain strength and certainly will impact the 2012 election process.
However, 2011 has shown that it picks its spots and is clearly stronger in some places than others. Additionally, in the last few months, we have seen the emergence of its far left alter ego, the Occupy Movement. Obviously Occupy is nascent in its development and the jury is still out on whether they will play a meaningful political role, but it does show that across the ideological spectrum, the electorate is disgruntled with the state of affairs in this country. But is it rhetoric or reality? The statewide elections held this year may give us a clue.
West Virginia -- Not only was this an off-year election, but it was a special election held just this past October. Long-time Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin (D) had been serving as Acting Governor since former Gov. Joe Manchin (D) took the Senate seat of Robert C. Byrd, who passed away in 2010. Businessman and first-time candidate Bill Maloney (R) narrowly lost to Tomblin in the Oct. 4 contest, despite the funneling of millions of outside dollars into the race by the Republican Governors Association.
Though West Virginia and its Democratic establishment have strong ties to the state's unions, Tomblin and his counterparts in Charleston have been open to the concerns of businesses in recent years, including the defeat of an effort to establish an inconsistent menu labeling regime before the national standard was enacted.
The final outcome was tighter than many would have expected prior to Manchin's Senate special election, which may indicate that Democratic dominance in Charleston is no longer a foregone conclusion. Regardless, despite the changing nature of the state and the national mood, the incumbent establishment prevailed.
Louisiana -- Unless reading the Sunday edition of The Times-Picayune is part of your weekend, you may have missed the fact that Gov. Bobby Jindal, once and possibly future star of the Republican Party, was resoundingly reelected on Oct. 22. And the state's Democrat-turned-Republican attorney general, Buddy Caldwell, cruised to another term without opposition. Jindal took 66 percent of the vote in a 10-way, all party primary. Clearly, although a different partisan outcome than West Virginia, the incumbent establishment prevailed.
Kentucky -- Gov. Steve Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway, both Democrats, sought reelection and easily won. Beshear was helped, in part, by a significant fundraising operation and by the woeful campaign run by Republican challenger, Senate President David Williams.
Additionally, Beshear benefitted by having former Louisville "Mayor for Life" Jerry Abramson as his Lt. Governor candidate, who remains tremendously popular in Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County, and who had down-ballot benefits for other Louisville Democrats, namely Conway. Despite Conway's U.S. Senate race loss last year to Tea Party darling Rand Paul, he easily won reelection to another term as AG. Again, the incumbents prevailed.
Mississippi -- Republican incumbent Gov. Haley Barbour is term limited and his strong backing of Lt. Governor Phil Bryant paved the way to an easy victory, with Republicans retaining control of the Governor's office. Democratic incumbent Attorney General Jim Hood was seeking his third term and prevailing wisdom said that he should have had an uphill battle, as Republicans control almost all statewide offices in the South. However, Hood easily cruised to reelection despite his opponent's relentless "Stop Obamacare" campaign.
In 2007, Hood's personal popularity helped him sail to re-election with nearly 60 percent of the vote, even exceeding Barbour's vote tallies. Much has changed over the past four years, but Hood's efforts to engage the business community and his focus on intellectual property and copyright protections resulted in broad-based support. As we can see, the 2011 results mirror those of 2007.
The takeaways here are interesting. In all four states, the anti-establishment Tea Party is particularly active yet despite the raging public angst, the "establishment" basically remained intact in all four and in fact, won comfortably in most places. Also, in each state, three of which are heavily Republican, incumbent Democrats not only survived, but thrived.
So what does it mean for 2012? Reading political tea leaves is a tough business and these results are clear as mud. One thing should be clear, however -- don't believe the hype. A year in politics is a lifetime and predictions of electoral wipeout are almost always wrong.
Despite the President's well-deserved sagging popularity and the economic morass we find ourselves in, state and local races still hinge on state and local issues and national races usually hinge on good candidates. On the national level, we already know the Democrats have one. Will the Republicans?
Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Parquet Public Affairs, a national issue management, communications, government relations and reputation assurance firm that specializes in service-sector industries. Parquet's clients include Fortune 500 corporations, trade associations, regional businesses and non-profit organizations. For more information, go to www.ParquetPA.com.
Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.