Pocketbook Issues Were Key to November 2006 Election

Published February 1, 2007

In politics, election results usually are known within a few hours after the polls close, but the real story often takes more time to emerge.

So it has been with the November 2006 contest. In their haste to view the Democrats’ takeover of the House and Senate as a consequence of the Iraq War and scandals in Congress, the pundits overlooked another important factor: tax and budget issues.

Poll after poll has shown Democrat voters were more energetic and likelier to turn out this year than Republicans. One answer to why lies in the fiscal habits of candidates who were defeated.

Losers Deserted Taxpayers

The National Taxpayers Union’s 2005 Rating of Congress scored House members on 201 roll-call votes affecting federal taxes, spending, and economic issues.

Of the 20 Republican incumbents who lost their seats on November 7, just two of them earned a pro-taxpayer rating score high enough to win a “Taxpayers’ Friend Award.” The remaining 18 lawmakers scored several points below the GOP average for the House as a whole.

The same pattern held true for the six Republican senators who were ousted.

The upshot: When these lawmakers deserted their fiscally conservative base, in the process boosting federal outlays 45 percent over the past five fiscal years, the base deserted them.

Wanted Smaller Government

Those who aren’t among the party faithful didn’t seem too impressed either.

A CNN poll taken just before the election showed that by a 54 percent to 37 percent margin, a sample of Americans with all affiliations thought government should be doing less, rather than more, to solve the problems confronting the country.

In addition, 72 percent of respondents believed the size of government had ballooned in the past four years.

Additional evidence of disapproval of big government emerged at the state and local level. Governorships in Arkansas and Ohio, where retiring Republicans had poor records on taxes, flipped to the Democrats, while GOP state executives in Minnesota and South Carolina who practiced fiscal restraint won re-election.

Relatively moderate Democrats–all of whom either advocated tax cuts or kept a lid on budgets– cruised to victory in governors’ races in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

Tax-Hike Initiatives Unpopular

But the most telling sign that voters are thinking hard about their tax dollars didn’t involve office-seekers. It was in the measures placed on ballots for the public’s consideration.

Voters in California, which John Kerry won by a 10 point margin in 2004, defeated all four tax-hike proposals put before them.

Tobacco tax hikes, on the ballot in four states, are usually considered slam dunks for passage, yet their win-loss record in November was only .500. Californians and Missourians turned them down.

A 1.0 percentage point sales tax increase was nixed in Idaho, and a Michigan scheme to guarantee a minimum inflation-adjusted level of school funding lost handily.

Protecting Private Property

One of the biggest November 7 trends was protection from eminent domain abuse. In nine of 11 states, voters adopted measures largely prohibiting government seizures of private property for economic development to create more tax revenues, permitting such actions only for public uses such as roads and schools.

Clearly, the November 2006 election was not a public mandate for more government. “Pocketbook issues” made a major impact at the polls, and Americans firmly decided to keep their own pocketbooks closed.

Pete Sepp ([email protected]) is vice president for communications with the National Taxpayers Union.