It’s certainly understandable if most hunters did not pay especially close attention to the “off-year” elections in Virginia and New Jersey. After all, North American game seasons are beckoning. Few would have thought that the outcome would have a major impact outside those two states. And even those who were paying attention thought the outcome in Virginia would be very close, a result that would not hold major portent for the national political cycle in 2018, given that Virginia has become a swing state in recent election cycles.
They were wrong.
First, let’s get New Jersey out of the way. The large margin of victory for Democrat Phil Murphy was consistently predicted for weeks ahead of Election Day. Murphy was running against Chris Christie’s top lieutenant, and Christie’s abysmal approval rating of 15 percent was a millstone around her neck that she simply couldn’t escape. While the outcome was not a surprise, it was nonetheless a setback for hunters.
Murphy campaigned on a promise to end the state’s bear hunt – reversing a long and hard-fought victory in which SCI’s Litigation Team played a major role. Murphy has also vowed to pursue the passage of strict new firearm restrictions even more onerous than those already in place in the Garden State, making the state even more hostile to gun owners and sportsmen. But while the outcome is not a net positive, it was nonetheless well within the state’s pendulum of political cycles.
The election results in Virginia were another matter entirely. Going into Election Day, the polls in the governor’s race had all closed to within the margin of error – calling for a tight outcome no matter the victor. The Republicans held a 16-seat advantage in the 100-member General Assembly, and even Democratic partisans did not believe the Republican majority in the legislature could be toppled. But when the polls closed, a very different reality quickly emerged. The Democratic candidate for governor was declared the victor within a scant few hours with a margin of victory that would stretch to nine points – a veritable blowout. Even worse news was found in the demographic breakouts. His margin among women voters was 22 points, and he took voters younger than 45 by 30 points.
Longtime Republican incumbents in the General Assembly were quickly dispatched as well, in many cases defeated by novice candidates on their first electoral campaign. The most socially conservative member of the Assembly was defeated by a transgender journalist who had campaigned on the singular platform of “fixing” traffic on a congested local highway. Former Vice President Joe Biden called the candidate with congrats on that outcome. In another district, voters elected a single-issue gun control activist, formerly a small-town TV news anchor, whose sole claim to political fame was that his girlfriend was murdered by a lunatic the year before. At this writing, Democrats may well have taken control of the Assembly, pending three races that are currently under recount.
One Virginia voter told the Washington Post, “It could have been Dr. Seuss or the Berenstain Bears on the ballot and I would have voted for them if they were a Democrat … No one else gets any consideration because of what’s going on with the Republicans.” Another voter who had never before supported a Democrat told the paper, “I’ve been with the Republicans my whole life, but what the party has been doing is appalling.” The article reports that the retired executive said he rejected every Republican on the ballot and chose Democrats — whether he knew anything about them or not.
How did the polls miss the mark so widely? All polling is based on assumptions, particularly with regard to turnout. These assumptions, in turn, are based in the results of past elections. Just like in the 2016 presidential race, polls simply won’t be accurate when turnout changes radically from one election to the next. The turnout in this election was the highest in Virginia in 20 years. The Commonwealth does not register voters by party so precise figures can’t be calculated, but it’s clear from the results that Democratic-leaning voters turned out in numbers far greater than usual, while Republicans were largely unenthusiastic — or even pushed to support the other party by their perception of political events. That dynamic, in turn, is a direct result of the political climate in Washington, where Republicans wasted months futilely pursuing the repeal of Obamacare, and even now are all over the map on the fundamentals of tax reform.
Those are just the big-ticket items. If the Republicans are to have any hope of keeping their majorities in the Congress – particularly in the House, where retirements are making the job harder already – they will need to drive up their own turnout in 2018. And that means the party needs to get its act together and start passing not only the big-ticket items, but hundreds of smaller bills aimed at specific constituencies. The president’s pen is waiting.
At the moment, the hunters’ agenda is temporarily mired in gun politics, which in turn have been complicated by recent tragedies. But one glimmer of progress recently passed the House. H.R. 2936, the “Resilient Forests Act of 2017,” is now awaiting action in the Senate. H.R. 2936 aims to increase proactive forest management to prevent wildfires, promote healthy and sustainable forests and create early successional wildlife habitat. It also streamlines a multitude of processes involved in the active management of our federal forest land.
Hunters know that managed forests are healthy forests, and that healthy forests provide the best habitat for wildlife. The bill provides federal agencies tools to dramatically increase the pace and scale of forest management projects. It allows expedited environmental review for collaborative management projects, and perhaps most importantly, the bill promotes the quick resolution of nuisance litigation; it requires those who oppose forest management to offer alternative management projects instead of using lawsuits to simply halt forest management. This is the kind of workmanlike, common-sense legislation that will help save fire-prone communities, save taxpayer dollars and boost conservation in our federal forests. It’s an example of the kind of bill that lawmakers need to focus on getting passed in the year ahead – and hundreds more like it.
Good policy is good politics. We’re approaching halftime in this session of Congress. The off-year elections proved that the Republicans are way behind, politically. The Republicans can still come back, but much work lays ahead. Yes, the Democrats will intentionally obstruct each and every effort to pass positive legislation, but that’s to be expected from the minority. The problems the Republicans have had in passing major bills have not come from Democrats, but from fellow Republicans finding self-centered reasons to avoid working in concert and unity.
Rest assured your SCI Washington team is at the table, working to advance the hunters’ agenda.