Winners, Losers From Off-Year Elections

On Tuesday, two GOP-backed measures were struck down: Mississippi's amendment that would've defined fertilization as the start of life, and Ohio's measure to uphold a law curbing collective bargaining rights for public workers. Host Michel Martin explores what these results might mean for the 2012 elections. She speaks with former Obama administration staffer Corey Ealons and GOP strategist Ron Christie.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. These activists, black and white, left their homes and schools and jobs to literally ride the buses to call attention to the ongoing segregation of public facilities in the Jim Crow South. Today, we'll speak with one of the women Freedom Riders about why she, a wife and mother of four, decided to make that dangerous journey, and how she endured brutal conditions in a Mississippi jail. That conversation is coming up.

But first, we want to talk about the election results from yesterday. Political watchers nationwide are using the results to gauge the public's mood heading into the primary season, now only a few months away, and of course the general election a year from now. There was something for everybody to chew on. Democrats and progressives were victorious in a number of high-profile races, defeating controversial ballot measures in Ohio and Mississippi, while retaining the governor's mansion in Kentucky.

Republicans and conservatives, though, can cheer the election of Republican Phil Bryant, who will succeed Haley Barbour as Mississippi's next governor. Barber is a political star, but he was term-limited and unable to run again, and it looks as though Virginia Republicans may now control both legislative houses, as well as the governor's office in that state. Here to talk more about all this, Corey Ealons. He's senior vice president of the strategic communications firm VOX Global. He's also the former director of African-American media for the Obama administration.

Also with us, Ron Christie. He's a Republican strategist and a former aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both for being with us. Good to have you here.

COREY EALONS: Good to see you.

RON CHRISTIE: Hey, there. Good to be here.

MARTIN: Now, I think all these situations are different. So I just want to start in Ohio, where voters moved to strike down a Republican-backed law that curbed collective bargaining rights for public workers. Ohioans supported the repeal by a very wide margin, more than 60 percent. This is what Ohio Governor John Kasich had to say about the referendum last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GOVERNOR JOHN KASICH: When you get beat, you have to admit it, and then you got to congratulate and shake the hands of those folks who prevailed.

MARTIN: So, Ron, this is an interesting issue here, because the Republicans took over both houses. In the mid-term elections, John Kasich was elected. He made this an important campaign. You could think that he would have come in believing he had a mandate to take just such of an action. So, was it a surprise that the voters repudiated it so quickly?

CHRISTIE: It is. And, you know, that's vintage John Kasich for you. I worked for John Kasich for seven-and-a-half years as his senior advisor on Capital Hill, and that's John. John went in and said I think I'm doing the right thing for the American people. He thought that he had a mandate. He thought he had the ability to say we need to put the brakes on some of the spending for public, you know, sector folks, and he got beat. And he has to realize now that with 60 percent of the folks in Ohio saying we don't want what you try to do, he's going to recalibrate and move on. But yeah, he was beaten.

MARTIN: So, Corey do you see the - a broader message here for Democrats, or perhaps leading into the 2012 election? Or do you think that those circumstances were unique to Ohio?

EALONS: No, I think if you look at the full breadth of all the elections that took place last night, but especially in Ohio, I think you have to appreciate that this was a whole-sale rejection of the election results from last year. Republicans ran on the basis of we're going to come in and we're going to have to create jobs and economic opportunity. And then they quickly shifted to these highly ideologicalized(ph) ideas that they wanted to try to push through, and the American people said, in a very uncoordinated fashion - I'm a Democrat, by the way. So we don't know what coordination is.

They said, in a very uncoordinated way, no. We're going to reject that wholesale. And I will tell you that the Republican leadership in the House here in Washington would be very wise to heed what happened last night, because what they said was: We want leadership, and we want our elected officials to work together.

MARTIN: What - so what message do you draw from the Mississippi ballot measure which would have defined - it would have amended the Mississippi constitution. It would define life as beginning at fertilization. It was the so-called Personhood Amendment. Now, it's interesting, because the entire political leadership of Mississippi - political leadership backed this, including the Democratic nominee for president - for governor, Johnny DuPree.

EALONS: Right.

MARTIN: He did not prevail. The Republican did prevail. But this amendment was defeated - narrowly, but defeated. Now, Mississippi is considered, you know, the center of the Bible Belt, one of the most conservative states on sort of social measures.

EALONS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Is there some broader message here, Corey? And then Ron, of course, I'm going to ask you that question.

EALONS: Oh, I think once again we have to appreciate that this attempt to infringe on the reproductive rights of women was whole-sale rejected by Democrats and Republicans in the state of Mississippi. But it also says that we really need to take a pause and appreciate what it is that we're trying to get done here. We don't need to be focused on these highly idealized concerns. We need to be focused primarily on what people are most concerned about, which is creating jobs, turning our economy around, getting us back on track. That's what people are saying.

MARTIN: How do you read it, Ron?

CHRISTIE: I don't really interpret it that much differently. I think - I'm pro-life. I think I understand those who are pro-choice and where they're coming from. I don't see it as a repudiation based on a woman's right to choose or women's ability to control their body. But I think you look at Mississippi. It's one of the poorest states in the United States. They have really been hit bad by economic times, and they're saying what in the heck are you people doing in the capital dealing with reproductive rights issues that some might say - or a life issue, as I might say - why don't you figure out how to get the state back on track? And I think that's why that was repudiated.

Let me just say one quick thing to what Corey said about Ohio. See, here's the difference: This isn't the Republicans coming out of an ideological perspective and saying we're going to punish people. This is a cognizant recognition that this country is bankrupt, that our states are bankrupt and that we need to renegotiate, we need to reevaluate the way that we look at public sector workers. And you saw it with Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Kasich did what he thought was the right thing. I thought it was the right move, but the voters said otherwise.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about yesterday's election results and what they might mean, particularly portending to the 2012 presidential election. We're speaking with political strategist Ron Christie and Corey Ealons. Ron Christie, of course, a Republican, Corey Ealon's a Democrat, both former White House aides in their respective administrations. We have to talk about Herman Cain. I mean that...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHRISTIE: Do we?

EALONS: Do we have to?

CHRISTIE: Do we?

MARTIN: Yeah, we kind of do.

EALONS: Yes, we can.

CHRISTIE: Oh, okay.

MARTIN: I just kind of do.

CHRISTIE: All right.

MARTIN: Yes, we can and yes we must, because he is a front-running contender.

EALONS: Yes, we must. Right.

MARTIN: He has surged to the head of the field in a number of polls. At least he's certainly competitive with Mitt Romney, with a lot more experience and name recognition. After saying he was moving on from the controversy, two women in recent days have gone public saying that they were the targets of inappropriate behavior by him - inappropriate, sexually aggressive moves. I don't know what else to call it. This is what he has to say about this at a press conference yesterday in the Phoenix area.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HERMAN CAIN: I have never acted inappropriately with anyone, period.

MARTIN: Now, Ron, to this point, Herman Cain and those who've supported him have blamed the liberal media and the Democratic machine and so forth, and just saying that this is just a scurrilous attack to take him down, particularly because he's an African-American conservative. You know, this is a person who's previously said that there is no role for - that racism is not a factor in public life. Now he says it is with him. But how do you read this? I mean, do you find - do you think that these allegations are - that these two women coming forward with names, dates, and faces attached is a game-changer for him?

CHRISTIE: Well, of course it's a game-changer. I think anytime that any woman alleges that any man who is seeking elective office has sexually harassed them or assaulted them, I think that's automatically a game-changer. You know, last week I listened to Cain, and when he came out and he said, you know, this is nothing more than a high-tech lynching, my first reaction was, you know, gosh. Is this Clarence Justice Thomas all over again? Then I thought, no. This should have nothing to do with race.

This should have to do with: Do these allegations have merit? Yes, no. If they do, let's have that conversation. If they don't, they should summarily dismissed. The lawyer in me, though, says he's being kind of put in a bad spot. These women aren't under oath. They aren't being deposed. They aren't - he's not given the opportunity to get his fair share of the story out by having a chance to put them under oath and ask them some serious questions. My thing about this - and I've thought this and said this from the get-go - this, to me, proves that he's not ready for primetime in politics.

MARTIN: Because...

CHRISTIE: Because he didn't assemble the right team. He didn't assemble the right folks to advise him. First, he was talking all of the time and then, finally, yesterday, he has a press conference with a very well renowned lawyer who came out and said, look, these allegations are serious, but my client's innocent and here's why.

Why wasn't Herman Cain doing this weeks ago? He just kept shooting himself full of holes that were unnecessary and I think his candidacy is on life support.

MARTIN: OK. Corey, I take it you agree.

EALONS: I do agree.

MARTIN: You do agree?

EALONS: I also said that Herman Cain wasn't ready for prime time from the get-go, but here's what we really - the Republicans and conservatives need to be concerned about right now. The GOP brand is in freefall. If you look at the results from yesterday's election, if you look at the abysmal approval ratings that Congress has as a whole with the approval for the GOP leadership in particular serving as a lead balloon there, if you look at - and then you add what's happening with the circus of the GOP candidates right now and Herman Cain in particular, as long as he is standing next to those folks on the stage, as he will be tonight, he continues to make this a circus and that ultimately is going to continue to erode the GOP brand. Ultimately, that's good for Democrats in the end.

MARTIN: Well, OK. But the GOP brand doesn't seem to have been a freefall in Virginia, where it was a narrower race, but it does appear that they are taking over the Senate, where they previously held the House and now they'll control all three branches there. And Virginia being a purple state, this is the state that President Obama won.

EALONS: Sure. But when you...

MARTIN: And unusually for a Democrat, so...

EALONS: But that's one pocket. If you look at it holistically, if you look at what's happening nationally, there's something really happening there.

MARTIN: OK. I take your point, but finally, what's happening at the White House, your former stomping ground, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley is being reassigned. He's replaced by Pete Rouse. He's a close confidante of the president. I know this is a little inside baseball.

EALONS: Right.

MARTIN: But is there something important to note about this kind of staff shakeup? I mean, the former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, then, of course, went on to become mayor of Chicago, but is there something there that portends some chaos at the White House or some frisson of excitement that we should be paying attention to?

EALONS: No. I think that's dramatically overstated. What it says is that the job of a chief of staff is a huge job and has evolved dramatically over the past 25 years. It's very smart for the White House to say, you know what? Let's take some of these pieces that are currently in your bailiwick and let's move them over to Pete Rouse, who is a historic figure here in the city of Washington, beloved by many and who has shown himself to be tremendously competent in his role in the White House.

So I also want to give a plug to our folks at the White House today having an African-American conference there - first time ever. Fantastic that they're doing this. This is a sign that President Obama continues to shore up his base. It's a very good move.

MARTIN: All right. Corey Ealons is the senior vice president of the strategic communications firm, Vox Global. He served as director of African-American media for the Obama administration. Ron Christie is a Republican strategist, a former aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

They were both kind enough to join us together in our Washington, D.C. studios and they played nice and we're happy about that. Thank you both.

CHRISTIE: Good to see you both.

EALONS: Thank you so much.

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