Tuesday’s elections in Iowa and across the country are now in the books. Iowa voters went to the polls to elect candidates to school boards and city offices and many of those victors were easily identified shortly after polls closed. Some of the higher profile races across the country, though, have taken a few days to sort out. Even putting aside any recounts or further investigations that may spring up, ballots were still being counted in governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey into Wednesday. Professional political pundits and Facebook commenters are in a race to explain what it means for the next round of elections in 2022, but we want to examine these results from the perspective of what they mean for likely policy changes, both in Washington and in Iowa.
What happened in Virginia?
All major media outlets have now declared Glenn Youngkin (R) the winner in the Virginia governor’s race over former Governor Terry McAuliffe (D). It’s worth noting that Virginia’s election rules are different than ours, and in that state a person cannot serve two consecutive terms as governor. While Terry McAuliffe wasn’t in fact the incumbent, he previously held that office from 2014 until 2018. Facing a Republican businessman in Youngkin in a state that President Joe Biden won by 10 points just one year ago, McAuliffe was originally expected to cruise to victory.
Something funny happened on the way to November, though, and support for the Biden presidency started to erode this year (here in Iowa, 58% of Iowa voters disapprove of the job he has done in office). Even skepticism of President Biden probably wouldn’t have been enough to push Youngkin to victory. It wasn’t until McAuliffe, being oblivious to the angst so many parents are feeling about their child’s education, let his true feelings show that Youngkin found the opening he needed. Youngkin’s momentum seemed to surge when McAuliffe said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Ultimately, education proved to be an important issue in Virginia, but it wasn’t the only issue on the minds of voters. If exit polls can be believed, it may not have even been the most important one there. Voters identified the economy (33%), education (24%), and taxes (15%) as their largest concerns. While education was important and may have been the spark that launched Glenn Youngkin to victory, it turns out inflation, empty shelves, and shuttered businesses still matter.
And New Jersey?
The matchup of McAuliffe and Youngkin stayed firmly planted on everyone’s radar after McAuliffe told parents to stay out of the schools. But the race for New Jersey’s governor seemingly snuck up on the entire country. Still locked in a virtual dead heat as of midday on Wednesday, it now appears that Democrat incumbent Phil Murphy defeated Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli by less than a percentage point. Even with Murphy’s victory, New Jersey voters swung even farther than Virginians, as Biden had carried the Garden State by 16 points in 2020.
One poll released close to election day concluded that taxes were the most important issue in New Jersey. We’ll go ahead and draw a conclusion here: when taxes are important, voters prefer the approach taken by conservatives. The perspective held by lawmakers like Governor Murphy, who has said, “If taxes are your issue, we’re probably not your state,” is not often a political winner.
Does it mean anything for Washington?
In the weeks leading up to election night, as President Biden struggled to build Congressional support for his agenda, a theory was being developed about how state-level races might impact federal legislation. While Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin have been vocal about their opposition to some of the pricier federal reforms being considered, other legislators have also been hesitant, if less publicly so, to fully embrace the President’s agenda. If the President’s agenda wasn’t passed before the election (it wasn’t), and if the elections went poorly for Democrats (they did), it was thought that more Democrats in Congress would get uncomfortable with the size and scope of Biden’s ambitions. If these members of the president’s own party grow louder with their objections, it may force Biden to further scale down his proposals.
How about Iowa?
Iowa’s school board and city elections obviously didn’t draw national attention on Tuesday night, but turnout for our local elections hit a record high. It’s likely that the tug of war in education was the primary driver for voter turnout. Issues as divisive as masks, vaccines, curriculum, and gender have kept school board meetings intense all year and that translated to a group of very motivated and very vocal candidates seeking seats on their local school boards.
Des Moines Register headlines don’t draw any definitive conclusions for what Central Iowa voters want. Ankeny and Johnston victors were respectively described as “conservatives” and “mask mandate opponents” while Waukee had “conservative candidates defeated” and West Des Moines saw “mask mandate supporters win.” Ankeny and Johnston voters leaned one way, Waukee and West Des Moines voters leaned the other. What’s likely more telling than the results was the aforementioned record turnout. Polk and Dallas County polling locations felt the rush of voters all day long, with some Dallas County locations having to print additional ballots!
Maybe this should be the Iowa summary: Iowans feel very strongly about education (and that passion likely isn’t going away just because the election has passed) and there are very distinct ideas about what education should be. We don’t want to sound like a broken record, but this points us to a need for real school choice that acknowledges that one size does NOT fit all. Just as school board elections within the same metropolitan area pointed in two very different directions, so too do the educational needs of different students in the same community. Families should have the choice, and government backing in the form of an Education Savings Account, to put their child into the school that best fits them.
2022 in Iowa
The focus will now quickly turn toward next year’s legislative session before Iowa voters go the polls for midterm elections of our own one year from now. Nothing from the local elections here in Iowa, nor races across the country, will have changed the perception that this political environment is toxic for those who want to push a tax and spend agenda. In the most recent ITR Foundation poll from October, Iowans stated that their property taxes are too high (63%), budget surpluses should be used to cut income taxes (59%), and parents should be able to use state funding at the school of their choice (57%). Given the surprising results in Virginia and New Jersey, there is every reason to believe these poll numbers, and believe that Iowans want conservative legislation delivered from the State Capitol.