The only other state where the party winning the gubernatorial race electoral votes differs is Montana, where another popular incumbent is hanging up his cowboy boots. Democrat Steve Bullock, the Treasure State’s attorney general, ran to succeed outgoing Gov. Brian Schweitzer. For most of the race, he was locked in a dead heat with former Rep. Rick Hill, the GOP nominee. But confusion over a judicial ruling forced Hill to give up $500,000 in donations in the crucial stretch run—and kept him off television for the final week of the race. That was enough for Bullock, who won by a 49 percent to 47 percent tally.
Gubernatorial elections were a rare bright spot for Republicans on Tuesday night. After winning North Carolina, the party boasts 30 of 50 governorships—what McDonnell calls the “nation’s CEOs.”
“We’ve got some work to do structurally with young voters and minority voters,” McDonnell said. But, he added, “I think that’s going to be the future of our party, conservative governors in the states.”
Some unexpected issues are uniting more voters, even as the nation remains deeply divided along partisan lines. Gay marriage, once an issue Democrats avoided for fear of its political fallout, has lost much of its potency. On Tuesday, voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington state approved ballot questions permitting same-sex unions, while voters in Minnesota blocked a constitutional amendment that would have banned them.
Marijuana, too, is finding traction in more-liberal states. Voters in Colorado and Washington state backed initiatives to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug. The ballot questions drew an odd coalition of supporters, including civil libertarians and law-enforcement personnel tired of trying to enforce marijuana laws. Perhaps more counterintuitively, medicinal-marijuana dispensary owners are becoming the measure’s biggest opponents, fearful that their monopoly status is in jeopardy. Voters in Oregon rejected a similar measure, while those in Montana voted to ban marijuana use for medicinal purposes.
Even in an age of federal-budget austerity, some voters are willing to pay higher taxes. California voters handed Gov. Jerry Brown a big win by approving Proposition 30, a measure that would increase certain taxes to provide more funding for education. But Washington state voters weren’t in the same giving mood; they voted to establish a law handcuffing the state Legislature’s ability to raise taxes, something that is similar, but not identical, to the Taxpayers Bill of Rights of the 1990s.
Meanwhile, a Minnesota proposal to require voters to show identification at the polls went down to defeat, the first time such a measure has lost when it was on a ballot. Still, given the success conservatives have found in pushing voter-identification laws through state legislatures, some opponents worry that initiatives are the next step.
Liberal groups that keep close tabs on ballot initiatives declared themselves satisfied with the results. “We saw so many rights expanded,” said Justine Sarver, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “We made history in voting for marriage equality. Seeing the voter-ID amendment rejected by voters ... is a huge statement to reject the policies that we’ve seen in state legislatures the last couple of years on voter restriction.”
The explosion of money available in politics has not stopped with the presidential election, or even with federal races. A few tax initiatives and a measure to restrict political activity by labor unions attracted more than $350 million in spending in California alone. By the time all the spending is totaled up, Sarver said, the tab could exceed $1 billion.
“Ballot-measure spending is largely uncapped, and we are certainly concerned that corporations are going to be able to legislate and buy things without fair debate,” she said. “We’re definitely working on making some recommendations about transparency for who’s putting things on the ballot and what’s behind them.”
This article appeared in print as "State Politics Go National."
This article appears in the Nov. 10, 2012, edition of National Journal.