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On November 2, Minnesota had the highest voter turnout of any state in the nation. The 77 percent of residents who voted will end up influencing higher education policies in the years ahead.

Postelection politics

By John Engelen

Published on November 6, 2004

On November 2, the University of Minnesota and higher education institutions across the country kept a close eye on the presidential, congressional, and local legislative elections.

The outcome of the presidential election has an impact on higher education most specifically through presidential appointments and policy. The federal government is critical to higher education, particularly when it comes to funding research and financial aid, and in setting policies around international students and scholars.

The balance of power in Congress can influence the distribution of billions of dollars and the overall ability of the House and Senate to pass legislation. Public higher education institutions rely heavily on support from their own congresspeople to move forward a positive federal higher education policy.

On the state level, the elections were important because state funding is crucial for public universities and colleges.

Below is an overview of how things shook out after the election, on both the state and federal levels, and how those changes might have an effect on the University and higher education in general.

The president

President Bush views his reelection as a mandate and has indicated that his second-term goals will include revising Social Security, fighting terror, and overhauling the tax system. He pledged to work with Democrats and called on Congress to show spending discipline, reform the intelligence process, and restrict frivolous lawsuits.

Changes are inevitable in second terms and attorney general John Ashcroft and homeland security secretary Tom Ridge are most likely to leave the cabinet in the coming months. There is speculation about defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and secretary of state Colin Powell also leaving. In addition, national security adviser Condoleeza Rice is reportedly not enthusiastic about remaining in her current position and is interested in either becoming Rumsfeld's replacement or leaving Washington to reenter academia. She was formerly provost at Stanford University.

The U.S. Senate

The Republicans picked up four seats in the U.S. Senate, giving them a 55-to-44 majority, with one Democrat-leaning Independent.

With 10 or 11 more seats than the Democrats, Republicans have the right to set the Senate agenda and to chair all committees. Given the Senate's unique set of rules, however, it does not give them outright power. Any single senator, regardless of party affiliation, has the right to "hold," or block, any piece of Senate business. Technically, a hold is a threat of filibuster (endless talk to stop legislative action). The Senate may vote to override that threat but only if 60 or more members vote to do so. The Republicans are five short of the 60 required to override.

Democrats will map out a strategy to use their filibuster powers selectively on high-level battles, such as appointment of any Supreme Court justice, while careful to avoid being perceived as obstructionist.

Republican election gains were primarily conservative candidates with strongly held viewpoints. Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-TN) will have to find ways to craft the compromises necessary to move legislation forward. Frist's challenge will be to nudge his fellow Republicans rightward enough to satisfy conservatives without alienating moderates.

Republican moderates like senators Olympia Snow (R-ME) and Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) are hoping to convince President Bush to push forcefully for cooperation within the Republican caucus and between the two parties.

Democrats, on the other hand, will be electing a new minority leader to replace defeated Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) and adjusting to a smaller caucus. The odds-on favorite to succeed Daschle is Senator Harry Ried (D-NV), though several others, including Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), are considering whether to run.

The U.S. House of Representatives

Republicans will continue their control of the House and occupy at least 230 seats while Democrats control 199. One representative remains officially independent while joining the Democratic caucus. As of November 5, the outcome of three additional state races for house seats remains undetermined.

Federal impact on the University agenda

In the coming year, Congress must reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), which sets the framework for many higher education regulations and programs. Given the likely changes in committee leadership, there will be renewed vigor in the discussion about institutional accountability and whether tuition is excessive. The Bush Administration stayed out of the fray last year, and there is no indication where it ranks HEA on its list of priorities.

Tight budgets in Washington are expected to continue and there will be no significant increases in federal science and research expenditures or new investments in student financial aid programs.

State election results

The entire Minnesota House of Representatives faced reelection. (The Senate is not up for reelection until 2006.) The election resulted in a substantial realignment of the House, with the Democrats picking up 13 seats and the Republican majority suffering significant losses. When the 2005 state legislative session convenes in January, Republicans will hold an advantage of 68-66.

The infusion of new Democratic members will likely aid negotiations with Governor Pawlenty, who, up until now, has been able to ignore the Democrats due to their lack of power in the House. This change in the balance of power could have a critical impact on the University, including the still-unresolved bonding bill from the last session, and the University's 2005 biennial budget request.

The upcoming session could see either a lot of bipartisan cooperation and compromise, or a continuation of legislative deadlock. Now, more than ever, the University will need to reach out to members of both parties and keep the advocacy and support for the U bipartisan effort.

Voter turnout

One of the most encouraging outcomes of the election was the historic voter turnout. The national turnout of eligible voters, at 60 percent, was the highest since 1968. Minnesota led the nation in voter turnout with 77 percent.

The 2004 election brought the Vote for the U campaign to a close. This effort, led by the Legislative Network, aimed to register voters, increase participation in the election, and encourage U supporters to vote for candidates that would support the U at the capitol. More than 6,000 people pledged to Vote for the U, and a coalition of University-wide nonpartisan groups registered more than 3,500 voters. The Legislative Network worked closely with the City of Minneapolis to bring polling locations to campus in an effort to increase voter turnout, particularly among students. On election day, the two precincts relocated to the Twin Cities campus saw a 65 percent increase in voters over the last presidential election in 2000.

John Engelen is director of federal relations for the University of Minnesota.