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Outsiders and Social Conservatives Claim Victory in Off-Year American Voting

US voters tacked to the right in a number of high-profile local elections and ballot initiatives on Tuesday, dealing a blow to Democrats and liberals in states and cities across the country.

by Olivia Becker
Nov 4 2015, 6:45pm

Republican businessman Matt Bevin won governor race in Kentucky. Photo via Timothy D. Easley/AP

US voters tacked to the right in a number of high-profile local elections and ballot initiatives on Tuesday, dealing a blow to Democrats and liberals in states and cities across the country.

Republican victories in a number of key statewide elections are likely to have ripple effects for the 2016 presidential race. The biggest upset came in Kentucky, where outsider millionaire candidate Matt Bevin won the governor's race that was expected to go to the Democratic candidate Jack Conway. Bevin is a businessman whose self-funded campaign frequently drew comparisons to Donald Trump's current bid for president. Bevin's win is further confirmation that this is indeed, as Democratic Governors Association Executive Director Elisabeth Pearson pointed out today, the "year of the outsider."

Bevin's win in Kentucky means more than just another blow to establishment politics. He has promised to dismantle the state-run health insurance system put in place by Obama's Affordable Care Act, which could mean as many as 400,000 Kentuckians will lose their health insurance. His victory may also mean that Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, whose presidential campaign is currently trailing in single-digit polling numbers, could stay in the race a little longer. Republicans unseated Kentucky's incumbent state auditor, Adam Edelen, the candidate who national Democrats had hoped could challenge Paul in next year's elections.

The GOP also claimed victory in Virginia, increasing the likelihood that the party will take the swing state next November too. Democrats only needed to pick up one senate seat from the Republicans in order to take control over the state senate but failed to flip a single one. Virginia's Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, a close ally of Hillary Clinton's, had spent the past weeks campaigning hard to take the upper house from Republicans.

It is worth noting that turnout was very low in the off-year election, especially amongst Democrats. In Kentucky, less than a third of registered voters went to the polls. "The 2015 election has always been an uphill battle for Democrats," the Democratic Party of Virginia said in a statement to the Washington Post on Tuesday. "Off-­off-­off-year elections are not traditionally friendly ground for a party that relies on high turnout numbers for success."

Social conservatism won out in a number of key ballot initiatives on Tuesday that dealt with issues of minority discrimination, marijuana legalization, and taxes. In Houston voters rejected an anti-discrimination law that would have provided protections on the basis of 15 classifications, including race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and age. Supporters of the bill had raised more than $3 million for their campaign, which also drew national support from high-profile politicians and celebrities. Opponents said the law, by giving greater protections to transgender people, would have allowed men dressed as women into female bathrooms.

Residents in Ohio, meanwhile, struck down a ballot initiative that would have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use. The initiative drew surprisingly vigorous opposition among cannabis advocates because it would have given several wealthy investors — who spent more than $25 million pushing for it — control of marijuana cultivation in the state.

Housing rights activists lost out to the sharing economy in San Francisco, where residents voted against a proposition to impose restrictions on short-term rentals. Airbnb spent $8 million and hired a top political operative to campaign against the measure.

Conservatives didn't win everywhere on Tuesday though. In Colorado, voters reaffirmed a bipartisan statewide measure to allow lawmakers to spend the tax revenue from legal marijuana sales on public services. The ballot initiative grants $40 million to school construction and an additional $12 million for substance abuse and youth programs in the state. Fiscal conservatives, including the think tank Americans for Tax Reform led by anti-tax Republican crusader Grover Norquist, were vehemently opposed to the measure, which they labeled a tax increase. In Maine, voters approved a measure to increase transparency and limit special interest money in elections.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928