Wednesday, November 07, 2007


There were some impressive wins for Democrats last night -- Dems took control of the Virginia Senate and beat Kentucky's incumbent GOP governor. But ballot issues involving money proved a tougher sell.

First, in New Jersey:

In a stunning defeat for Gov. Jon S. Corzine, New Jersey voters on Tuesday rejected a ballot measure that would have permitted the state to borrow $450 million for stem cell research.

... it was the defeat of the stem cell measure by a resounding 53-47 percent margin that dealt a sharp blow to Mr. Corzine, who had campaigned heavily for it and had contributed $150,000 to the effort.

... recent polls had indicated that the initiative would pass easily....

So what happened?

...a coalition of conservatives, anti-abortion activists and the Catholic church conducted a last-minute advertising blitz against it.

One group in particular gets a lot of the blame:

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, a Democrat, blamed defeat on a campaign by the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity. The anti-tax group, headed by Republican Steve Lonegan, funded radio, television and road signs portraying the proposals as fiscally irresponsible.

"We cannot afford more debt and spending,'' Lonegan wrote on the group's Web site. "Adding another $450 million in debt to roll the dice on speculative medical research hardly seems like a smart bet.''

Americans for Prosperity, by the way, seems to be a classic right-wing shrink-government-and-down-it-in-the-bathtub group -- though a bit of Googling reveals some religious-right and culture-war undertones: The group shares a D.C. address and some staff with the Independent Women's Forum; the group's president, Tim Phillips, was Ralph Reed's business partner until a couple of years ago; and one speaker at a recent meeting of AfP's Texas chapter was David Barton, whose made a career out of denying that the Founders wanted church-state separation. But AfP's campaign to beat the stem-cell measure was utterly secular -- and highly successful.

Meanwhile, in Oregon:

After a campaign marked by record amounts of tobacco industry money pouring into TV advertising, a cigarette tax increase to pay for children's health care was soundly defeated by Oregon voters in Tuesday's special election.

With 67 percent of the expected vote counted, Measure 50 was being rejected by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent....

Tobacco companies spent a whopping $12 million. They framed the issue in an odd way:

The tobacco industry's ad campaign focused on what it called the ill-advised move of enshrining the tobacco tax in Oregon's constitution, while other ads questioned whether all of the money would go to provide health care for children.

Not surprisingly, the techniques these expert marketers used worked like a charm:

Pete Zahuat, a smoker who lives in South Salem, voted against the measure.

"They shouldn't mess with the constitution when they're trying to pass taxes...., " he said, echoing a theme of the tobacco company ads.


This is a problem Democrats have: People like our ideas, but deep-pocketed opponents can usually make people dislike our ideas, or at least the ones that involve money. Ultimately, this means Democrats can't make good on many promises -- and this can lead to the defeat of Democrats at the polls. (Republicans, by contrast, can actually deliver on many of their promises, because they usually jibe with what business and anti-government-spending groups want.)

I don't know how this will change. It would be nice if the general public would learn to distrust the big-business and extremist anti-government groups that run these ad campaigns. But for now, those folks have a disproportionate share of power. And even if Democrats control Congress and the White House after the '08 elections, they'll still have a disproportionate share of power.

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