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Commentary: Election Woes

By Jennifer Nagorka, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

I feel like the kid who asked for a bike at Christmas, imagining she'd see a shiny new bicycle under the tree. Instead, she found her brother's hand-me-down clunker.

Hey, this isn't what I wanted!

Ten days ago, I was one of those voters who wanted change. Pick pretty much any office or any issue, and I was dissatisfied.

But when I read the election results last week, I thought, "Hey! This isn't what I wanted."

Let me explain.

Our state was supposed to be a historic, four-way toss-up for governor, with two major party candidates and two independent petitioners. One of those independents, Kinky Friedman, focused his campaign on recruiting new voters, especially young people, into the election process.

So what happened? Not only was the governor's race unexpectedly boring, with the incumbent winning easily, but voter turnout actually declined. More than 4.5 million Texans voted in the 2002 general election. This year, fewer than 4.4 million did. And during these past four years, the state has gained at least a million new residents.

In Dallas County, the alleged tsunami that washed out so many GOP office holders was more like a modest swell. Turnout declined from 37.25 percent of registered voters in 2002 to 34.2 percent this year. I'm beginning to like the idea that Arizonans just rejected: anyone who votes receives a chance to win a $1 million prize. The traditional strategies for encouraging people to vote certainly aren't working.

Those of us who did vote appear as deeply divided as ever. Most Texas voters didn't want Gov. Rick Perry to serve another term, but they couldn't agree on who should take his place. Although some newcomers managed to oust incumbents in legislative races, their margins of victory were typically slim.

The same was true in most federal races where seats changed hands. Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum was trounced by his challenger, but Jim Webb of Virginia won his Senate seat in a 49.6 percent to 49.3 percent squeaker. The Democrats now control the U.S. House, but in the Senate, each party officially controls 49 seats. Two men elected as independents will occupy the Senate's last two seats. With that sort of party divide, it could still be hard to accomplish anything in Washington.

Last, many Republicans who lost races were moderates, the legislators most able to work across party lines. If there's one thing the GOP didn't need, it was retreating even farther to the right.

There is some good news. Many of the newly elected Democrats, at least at the national level, are conservative - the so-called Blue Dogs -- or moderate. Blue Dogs lost clout in recent years, but last week's election results show they're on the rebound. These folks are more interested in addressing policy problems than enforcing ideological purity.

And there will be more veterans of recent conflicts serving in Congress. They will add a critical perspective to discussions about national security.

The governor's race didn't have the entertainment value I'd hoped for, and I'm a little worried about Dallas County's new district attorney, given his prior legal entanglements. But I asked for change, and I got it. With a little patience, even an old clunker can get you where you need to go.

Jennifer Nagorka is a writer from Dallas.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.