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Voters send a message to the right

Our view: Election results in Ohio and Mississippi suggest the Republican Party's political tidal wave of 2010 has turned a little shallow

2:39 PM EST, November 9, 2011

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Somebody needs to break the news to the Republican candidates looking to unseat President Barack Obama that the conservative tide that swept the nation in 2010 has receded. Denying public employees the right to bargain collectively and calling for strict limits on the reproductive rights of women won't necessarily play well in 2012.

At least it didn't on Tuesday, when voters in several telltale states went to the polls for local elections. Most encouraging for Democrats was the overwhelming defeat of Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich's law limiting the collective bargaining rights of some 350,000 government workers.

The outcome is especially noteworthy because Ohio, with its 18 electoral votes, is such a critical swing state in presidential elections. Recent polls show President Obama has been gaining ground there (suggesting he would capture at least 50 percent of the vote no matter whom the GOP nominates from the current field) despite the state's economic woes.

It's obvious that Ohio voters respect the employment rights of their firefighters, police and teachers even as such public workers are vilified by the GOP. Whatever anti-government furor motivated the attacks on worker rights in Wisconsin by a tea party-inspired Republican governor and state legislature is clearly not catching on elsewhere.

In Mississippi, the lopsided defeat of the "personhood" amendment, the proposal to treat a fertilized egg as a human being, was instructive as well. Even in a state as conservative and anti-abortion as Mississippi, voters recognize it's possible for government intervention in one's personal life to go too far.

The law not only sought to ban abortion in all circumstances — including incest, rape and a threat to the mother's life — but it would likely have prohibited cancer treatment for pregnant women, in-vitro fertilizations and even some common forms of birth control. Yet the GOP field is standing to the right of the Deep South as the various White House aspirants didn't seem to have much problem with the measure prior to this week. Even alleged moderate Mitt Romney has said that as governor he would have signed legislation that defines life as beginning at conception.

Indeed, the one constant in Republican debates so far is how the candidates stumble all over each other to define themselves as more conservative than the rest of the pack. That may still be what's necessary to win primary elections in Iowa and South Carolina, but it's unlikely to play particularly well with the broader electorate, which — surprise — includes a lot of people with far more moderate views.

The day was hardly a slam-dunk for Democrats, of course, with the GOP making gains in Virginia. But the donkeys are clearly no longer on the run, with re-election victories in Kentucky and West Virginia's gubernatorial races, a noteworthy outcome for Maryland's Martin O'Malley, the current chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

None of which is to suggest that the tide has turned so far that Mr. Obama faces a cake walk in 2012, or even should be favored to win re-election, not with so many Americans unemployed and discouraged by the economy. Rather, what appears to be happening is that voters are reverting closer to the norm — a distaste for extremist views.

That should be a lesson not only for presidential candidates but for those in Congress who are negotiating to reduce the nation's deficit. Continued gridlock won't play well with voters whose ire will likely be aimed at the side least willing to give ground. And at the moment, that would be the GOP, whose elected leaders recently offered to "raise" taxes but only under a plan that uses almost all of the resulting revenue to finance a tax cut for the rich.

The tactic amounts to a phony compromise, and Americans are not so gullible. As long as Republican leaders refuse to consider raising taxes (whether on the rich or otherwise), there's no hope of meaningful debt reduction — a point made not just by Democrats but by every significant (or at least intellectually honest) budget analysis of the past two years.

The GOP field still has time to moderate itself, of course. The candidates might take a cue from Governor Kasich, who has promised to "take a deep breath" and reflect on "what happened here." But that would require a willingness to listen more attentively and consider issues more judiciously than most have demonstrated in the past.

Instead, expect the candidates to charge forward and eventually suggest that the problem was someone or something wasn't conservative enough. Just as the Democrats neglected to heed the change in political tidal forces in 2010, the Republicans risk failing to recognize the moment when they were left high and dry by voters.