The Elections Big Winner: Reform

Did voters reject Republicans and embrace Democrats in the 2006 elections? Of course; the gains in seats held by Democrats (both nationally and statewide) suggest they did. But the reasons they handed more power to the Democrats are much more complex. Some pundits will say the elections were a rebuke of “extreme conservative policies.” The evidence, rather, reveals that voters were angry over the abandonment of fiscal conservatism and corruption in government.

Nationally, the situation in Iraq and the President’s approval rating weighed heavily on Republicans. Congressional incumbents felt the wrath of voters in large part because of the failure of the Republican-run Congress to exercise fiscal restraint.

A survey of voters in key districts by the national Club for Growth illustrates the frustration with the performance of Republicans. Not surprisingly, 57% of voters wanted representatives who will cut spending, while only 28% wanted someone who can bring home the bacon for local projects. Seems like Republicans would have had the edge. But voters didn’t view them as the party of fiscal conservatism.

Indeed, a majority of voters in these districts believed that Democrats—not Republicans—would reduce government waste and stop pork-barrel spending. Only 25% identified the GOP as the party which would do so, versus 39% identifying Democrats. Nearly one-third of voters said there was no difference between the parties.

When asked which party is the “party of Big Government,” 39% identified Republicans while only 28% said Democrats were. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed agreed with the statement that “Republicans in Washington have become just like the big spenders that they used to oppose.”

Yet in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Republicans have thus far retained control of both houses. Indeed, only 11 out of 228 state House and Senate seats will switch parties in January (nine currently held by House Republicans and two by House Democrats). The “success” of the Pennsylvania GOP in holding back the tide that swept away Republicans in so many other states was not because of their record on either fiscal responsibility or reform of Harrisburg politics. It was voter’s rejection of the status quo that will bring 50 new House members and five new Senators to the state Capitol in 2007.

Although Democrats increased their numbers in Harrisburg, fiscal conservatives were the electoral winners. Indeed, Pennsylvania will have a far more conservative General Assembly next year, despite the Republican losses and Democratic gains. While fiscal conservatives may remain in the minority today, their numbers are undeniably growing.

Additionally, nearly every GOP loss came from those who supported Gov. Ed Rendell’s tax, borrow, spend, and gamble plan for Pennsylvania. The major legislation of the past few years—legalized gambling, higher income taxes, faux property tax relief, bloated budgets, and the pay raise—was passed by a coalition of nearly every Democrat and a handful of Republicans supporting his agenda.

Additional evidence of the strength of the fiscal conservative movement is that only two of the incumbents who lost in the primary—Gib Armstrong and Teresa Forcier (both of whom accepted the unvouchered expenses from the pay raise debacle)—and none of those who lost in the general election earned higher than a “D” on the Commonwealth Foundation’s Liberty Index of all 253 members of the General Assembly. Of the 55 members leaving, nearly all of them are being replaced by new members who are as conservative or more conservative.

If not the Democrats or the Republicans, who then was the big winner in this election cycle? Reform was the clear winner of Harrisburg. Almost every newly elected lawmaker (from both parties) denounced the pay raise and ran on reforming the lawmaking process. Many incumbents lost because of their support of the pay raise and the corrupt system which enabled it. The ousting of Rep Mike Veon is most telling.

The second highest ranking House Democrat came from a staunchly Democratic district that he was expected to hold after a hard fought primary battle. But Mr. Veon’s unapologetic support for the pay raise—he was the lone vote against its repeal—along with recent scrutiny about his taxpayer-funded travel expenses and pork-barrel spending, cost him his seat. Voters sent the message that they will no longer accept “business-as-usual” in Harrisburg.

The election of so many new lawmakers—over one-fifth of the General Assembly will be freshmen—provides a great opportunity to transform the “business-as-usual” politics of Harrisburg. The first step toward reform will occur with leadership elections in the caucuses in both the House and Senate. While many new members campaigned on institutional reform, their commitment to good government will be put to the test very quickly. Indeed, while reform won the battles this year, voters will have to wait to see if it can win the war.


Nathan A. Benefield is a policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.