SALUTE TO RUSS: Wisconsin progressive Russ Feingold did not lose his Senate seat because he was the only senator to oppose the Patriot Act, or because he was the first senator to call for timelines to bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, or because he was the Senate’s most consistent opponent of job-killing free-trade deals. And he certainly did not lose because he was one of the few Democrats to vote against the Wall Street bailout of 2008.
The man who beat Feingold, Republican millionaire Ron Johnson, did not spend much of his vast campaign budget on ads addressing those issues. Rather, Johnson attacked Feingold for backing Obama’s stimulus bill and healthcare reform legislation. Johnson’s bogus claim was that Feingold was just a cookie-cutter Democrat who followed the party line. This was disproved by studies showing that Feingold was one of the most independent members of the Senate, and one of the few who consistently challenged presidents of both parties on constitutional and economic issues.
But in a hyperpartisan political moment, Feingold struggled to be heard by independ- ent voters who had traditionally supported him. He made the race far closer than the polls suggested it would be. But this was the year of Sarah Palin’s faux mavericks—not the sort of old-school men and women of principle whose tradition Feingold maintained for eighteen years. In the end, money and negative ads robbed our country of one of the handful of senators who proudly wore the label “progressive.” JOHN NICHOLS
BLUE ISLAND: Before the 2004 election, Republicans controlled almost every lever of power in Colorado: the governor’s mansion, both Senate seats, five of seven Congressional districts and both state houses. After the 2008 election, that power imbalance was reversed, with Democrats triumphing in this rapidly changing purple state. Republicans were supposed to take control again this year, but Colorado proved to be “a Democratic island in a GOP storm,” as the Denver Post put it.
Democrats easily held the governor’s mansion (Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper prevailed over Constitution candidate Tom Tancredo and Republican Don Maes), narrowly retained the Senate seat of Michael Bennet and limited their House losses to two. Colorado is a classic example of Tea Party overreach, where Republicans squandered their chances by nominating extremists like Maes and Ken Buck. Voters also rejected three tax-slashing ballot measures, an initiative to block the implementation of healthcare reform and an antichoice proposal to define a fetus as “personhood.” On a terrible night for Democrats, rays of hope still flickered out West. ARI BERMAN
BEYOND PROP 19: For drug policy reformers, the cascade of losses on November 2 was curiously invigorating. Fifty-four percent of California voters rejected Prop 19, which would have legalized the use and sale of recreational pot, and medical marijuana initiatives went down in Arizona, Oregon and South Dakota. But amid defeat was the growing conviction that larger victories lie ahead. Thanks to a well-run grassroots campaign, ample funding and widespread media attention, the liberalization of drug policy has emerged as a mainstream issue with broad appeal—particularly among young voters, 64 percent of whom supported Prop 19. Although reform advocates didn’t tip the balance this fall, they’re already geared up to push for similar ballot measures in 2012. As top legalization proponent Richard Lee noted, “We will be coming back, stronger than ever.” MARK SORKIN
EQUAL OPPORTUNITY LOST: Nearly 60 percent of Arizona voters approved Prop 107, amending the state Constitution to ban “granting preferential treatment to or discrimination against any person or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” While Prop 107 has largely been referred to as a ban on affirmative action in Arizona’s public universities, what many have failed to note is that it is already illegal for the state’s public universities to use a quota system. What Prop 107 does threaten is equal opportunity programs that are available to Arizonans once they have been admitted based on merit. Programs like Arizona State University’s Native American Summer Institute and the University of Arizona’s Women in Science and Engineering program may lose funding or disappear. KATE MURPHY
IOWA INJUSTICE: Still incensed by the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous 2009 decision to legalize same-sex marriage, conservative groups led by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) mounted a successful campaign to dismiss three pro-equality justices. It was the first time since 1962 that a statute allowing for “retention votes” was used, and the justices were ill equipped to fend off a barrage of television ads. Marsha Ternus, ousted along with her colleagues Michael Streit and David Baker, released a statement decrying the “unprecedented attack by out-of-state special interest groups.”
The outcome appeared more a result of manipulating a previously apolitical process than Iowans’ desire to carry out a homophobic vendetta: Attorney General Thomas Miller, who favors same-sex marriage and declined to pre-empt the court’s ruling last year, was re-elected. While that is somewhat reassuring, nevertheless, says Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, “this is a reminder that the antigay agenda of groups like NOM is not just antigay but part of a several-decades long struggle against bedrock American principles like the independent judiciary.” MICHAEL TRACEY
BALLOT BOWL: Ballot initiative threats to the environment in California and to health- care reform in three other states produced mixed results on election night. Prop 23, a measure that would have suspended green law AB 32 until unemployment falls below 5.5 per- cent, failed to pass. Good news also came in the passage of Prop 25, a law declaring that the state budget in California no longer requires a supermajority to pass, allowing money for crucial legislation to move forward. However, this progress was tainted by the approval of Prop 26. New taxes will need a supermajority, and the definition of what constitutes a tax will be altered to include some of what are currently referred to as fees, which often include environmental charges for polluting businesses. Health Care Freedom Acts, designed to counter Obama’s healthcare reforms, passed in Oklahoma and Arizona but failed in Colorado. JENNIFER O’MAHONY