Conservative anger abounds


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Republican Scott Brown’s defeat of Democrat Martha Coakley on Tuesday in Massachusetts’ U.S. Senate special election created the equivalent of an earthquake in politics. Also on Tuesday night, Democrat Janelle Rettig became the next Johnson County supervisor in a special election, making her the fifth Democrat on a board with five seats, in a county that gave Barack Obama 70 percent of the vote.

These two elections, at first glance, seem to represent countervailing trends. In deep-blue Massachusetts, a Republican running on a fairly conservative platform won a seat previously held by deceased and longtime Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy and his brother, President John F. Kennedy, before him. Locally, a Democrat won a seat vacated by the death of Democrat Larry Meyers in a county often referred to as the “People’s Republic of Johnson County.” Brown shook the political world; Rettig, the odds-on favorite, won.

Brown was able to win in Massachusetts in part because of a souring political environment for Democrats. All across the country, people are simply frustrated and, as we’ve seen in Virginia and in New Jersey, they are taking that anger out on incumbents. We’ve also seen a Republican Party that was moribund after the 2008 election, along with re-energized conservatives. A summer of volatile town halls and tea-party rallies provided outlets for those who don’t agree with President Obama’s agenda — for reasons that range from reasonable to quasi-nihilistic — to coalesce.

So the Massachusetts election and Johnson County election bear no similarities, have nothing in common, right?

Consider the precinct-by-precinct vote breakdown of the Johnson County election. Rettig did not lose any of the 25 Iowa City precincts (there was a tie in Precinct 7). But in the 32 precincts outside of Iowa City, many of them rural, Republican Lori Cardella won 23 of them. In fact, independent candidate James Knapp fared considerably better outside of the Iowa City limits as well. In 2008 Obama carried all of Iowa City’s precincts, plus 25 of the 32 precincts outside Iowa City.

In the 2006 county supervisor election, each of the Democratic candidates carried more than 20 of the 32 precincts outside of Iowa City, while carrying all of the IC precincts.

Voters in rural Johnson County have long been more conservative than voters living in Iowa City. Yet even those characteristics can’t explain away the divergence in results on Tuesday. They do show, however, a polarization of the local electorate, if only increasingly marginally so. And that polarization, I believe, is overlaid with some of the same forces that elected Brown and shocked so many Democrats across the country.

Of course there are several differences. A principal one: Rettig ran a very professional and aggressive campaign for the entire election. Martha Coakley, the Democrat in Massachusetts, probably didn’t. And it is likely that Johnson County will continue to deliver sufficient margins to Democratic candidates at the local, state, and national level. The day a Republican carries Johnson County would be a real “WTF” moment.

Alas, youth turnout there and here was low. I am a progressive and — while in this political environment one must expect to take some losses — I do want progressive candidates to win in 2010, 2012, and beyond. Youth will be critical to any success progressives have in 2010, and candidates avoid this at their own peril.

But Democrats and progressives in power all across the country — including locally — need to seriously listen to the frustration and legitimate concerns of voters of all ages. As even Obama acknowledged, “the same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office.”

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