By Tom Still

MADISON – It’s often dangerous to read too much into “off-year” elections, but last week’s votes on ballot initiatives, referendums and executive offices in 22 states sent a fairly clear message to neo-conservatives: Chill out.

Voters elected Democratic governors, kicked sand in the face of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, stood up to those who want to dumb down science in the classroom, and even said “yes” to spending proposals that passed the common-sense test. Some examples:

In the Pennsylvania city of Dover last week, voters swept out eight of nine school board members who decided the ninth-grade science students must be taught “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution.

In Ohio, voters approved borrowing $2 billion for economic development projects that ranged from funding research to improving roads and other public works. In total since Nov. 1, voters in six states have approved 11 proposals to increase taxes or spending – including a repeal of Colorado’s cap on state spending. Only three spending proposals were rejected during the same period nationwide.

Voters in Virginia, a reliably “red” state in presidential election years, turned a shade of blue. The Old Dominion elected Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine over a Republican opponent, despite late campaigning for the GOP cause by President Bush. On the same day, Democrat Jon Corzine won the governor’s race in New Jersey.

 Former action-hero actor Schwarzenegger saw four of his ballot initiatives terminated on Election Day, despite his attempts to go over the heads of legislators and straight to the voters. The California governor lost decidedly on initiatives related to teacher tenure, union political spending, state budget rules and legislative redistricting. He’s now pledging to be more bipartisan.

Republicans could celebrate that Michael Bloomberg easily won re-election as mayor of New York, but it wasn’t because he sold himself as a cultural warrior in the “neo-con” image. Rather, Bloomberg won by running to the middle and assembling a middle-class coalition that included roughly half of the city’s black voters and three out of 10 Latino voters.

It may have been the “intelligent design” backlash in Dover, Pa., and the Ohio spending referendum that were most instructive. In both cases, voters stood up to cultural conservatives who had laid down a harsh, uncompromising line.

In Dover, election rules forced all eight challengers to the eight “intelligent design” incumbents to run as Democrats – even though many were not. Republicans crossed lines in significant numbers to vote for the challengers, who won every contested seat.

The Dover schools had been the first in the nation to require that attention be paid to intelligent design. Administrators read a brief statement to biology classes asserting that evolution was only a theory, that a higher being must have made more complex life forms, and that a book on intelligent design was available in school libraries. A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of that practice will be decided early next year, but it appears voters have already spoken.

Ohio voters demonstrated a shift in their thinking about spending versus two years ago. In 2003, they rejected a proposal for the state to borrow $500 million to promote economic development. This time around, with elements of the Ohio manufacturing sector suffering, they approved $2 billion for essentially the same purposes. The borrowing plan overcame opposition from conservative Christian groups who wanted guarantees none of the money would be used to finance stem-cell research, a tact that stem-cell opponents have tried in Wisconsin, as well.

Most voters don’t like extreme positions, and smart politicians eventually figure out that governing from the middle is the best course. This month’s elections were a reminder that the next round of elections in 2006 may well be decided in the political center, not the right or the left.