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Forget the Polls. Look at these Election Results!
Democrats hand Republicans their asses in key elections around the country
There’s an identifiable cycle happening lately, where Democrats suffer anxiety through a number of bad polls, only to turn out in big numbers and score major electoral victories, even in the deeply red states. It happened right before the 2022 midterms.
And it happened again last night.
Voters across the country handed victories to Democratic candidates and causes, with abortion rights proving once again to be a major driver of turnout and enthusiasm.
In Virginia, Governor Glenn Youngkin, whom many in the GOP had hoped would be a “white knight” candidate to save them from Trump, poured $30 million into state legislative races to try and win a Republican trifecta in Richmond. But voters rejected that plan outright, keeping the state Senate in Democratic hands and even flipping the House of Delegates.
In Ohio, Issue 1, a ballot initiative to safeguard abortion rights in the state constitution, won a resounding victory with nearly 57 percent of the vote. This was a huge win for reproductive choice advocates, and the latest in a string of now eight state-level victories following the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022.
In Kentucky, a state which voted for Donald Trump by 26 points, Democrat Andy Beshear showed that his brand of caring, calm and effective governance could win over voters in Kentucky, even after Trump endorsed his opponent. Beshear won a second term as governor, giving him national prominence.
Let’s break these wins down a bit and discuss what they might mean for the general presidential election next year.
Virginia legislative elections
Two years ago, voters in Virginia handed Gov. Glenn Youngkin the keys to the governor’s mansion and turned the House of Delegates over to the Republicans. It was a stinging rebuke, especially after the state had gone solidly for Joe Biden the year prior. Only the state Senate remained in the Democrats’ hands.
Youngkin had run on a platform of “parental rights,” and in his signature fleece vest look, he sought to portray himself as a non-extremist who could gently push Virginia into a new kind of social conservatism. His victory in Virginia stirred talk of him running for president as a more “sane” and likable Republican.
By 2023, Youngkin had grown tired of the legislature repeatedly thwarting his agenda, which now included a state ban on abortions after 15 weeks. The $30 million he poured into legislative races had one goal: Republican dominance of the body so that his conservative agenda could advance without opposition.
In the process, he tried to frame his call on abortion restrictions as a “limit” rather than a “ban.” But voters didn’t buy it, and the Democrats mobilized. They ran on a platform of preserving abortion rights, combating extremism, and restoring normalcy to education. This proved a winning formula as Democrats retained control of the state Senate and flipped the House of Delegates. They also won key school board races in the state, including in Loudoun County which had become a national flashpoint for issues around curricula, including trans student rights and “critical race theory.”
The win by Democrats dashes hopes by Republicans that they could thread the abortion needle by pushing for a 15-week ban as a kind of compromise. For starters, voters know that many issues and complications from pregnancy occur well after that point. And they simply don’t believe politicians of any kind should get between families and their doctors on this issue, or on issues such as trans medical care. Youngkin’s failure, as well as the Ohio vote on Issue 1, leaves Republicans wondering how to handle the abortion question at all.
Ohio Issue 1
Despite all manner of machinations by the GOP to defeat the abortion ballot initiative in Ohio—including a failed August election where the GOP tried to raise the threshold to pass constitutional amendments to 60 from 50 percent—abortion rights will be enshrined in the Ohio Constitution, barring any last minute legal shenanigans. The victory was much anticipated, but the scale of it is worth noting.
As the Washington Post reported,
Preliminary exit polls had 1 in 5 Republicans and nearly two-thirds of independents backing the amendment, in a striking illustration of abortion rights’ popularity across party lines. With most of the vote counted late Tuesday, Issue 1 was projected to pass by a 10-point margin, while another ballot measure to legalize the recreational use of marijuana was projected to pass, 56 to 44 percent.
Ohio joins many other red states, including Kansas and Kentucky, in protecting the right that the extremist Supreme Court and GOP have sought to destroy. Such victories would not be possible without a strong shift in turnout and the crossing of party lines. The mobilization continues in Ohio, too: Next year, a ballot measure to establish a truly independent commission on redistricting is seeking to qualify in time for the election.
And it is not lost upon Democratic leaders that control of the Senate in Washington hinges also upon a key win in Ohio by its current senior senator, Sherrod Brown. They are expecting that the momentum and mobilization of state voters around abortion rights in 2023 will have a meaningful impact upon turnout and support for Brown in 2024.
Gov. Andy Beshear proved once again that he is a political unicorn by not only trouncing his Republican, Trump-endorsed opponent, Daniel Cameron, by five points in deeply red Kentucky, but by shifting votes his way in nearly every county in the state since the last election.
Remember, this is a state where other state-wide elected officials include arch-conservatives like Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell and extremists like Sen. Rand Paul.
Gov. Beshear has eschewed the politics of negativity in favor of a get-it-done style of governance. He brought major investments into the state, with the help of bills passed under Joe Biden, whom he has not been afraid to openly praise. He declared that his win sends a message “that candidates should run for something and not against someone… and a clear statement that anger politics should end right here and right now.”
Abortion rights also figured heavily into voter behavior in Kentucky. Gov. Beshear has been a strong advocate of restoring reproductive choice while attacking Cameron as radically out of step. One notable campaign ad, featuring the victim of childhood rape by her step-father, humanized the issue for many and drew national attention to the backward and harmful abortion policies of the GOP.
“Anyone who believes there should be no exceptions for rape and incest could never understand what it’s like to stand in my shoes,” the woman, named Hadley, said to the camera. “This is to you, Daniel Cameron. To tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable.”
The abortion wedge is now deeply driven
When an issue divides a party and peels off voters, it’s properly called a “wedge.” The GOP tried wedges of their own with trans medical care and trans athletes in school sports, but the Democrats hit back far more successfully with abortion.
Democrats and Republicans alike now understand that voters will come to the polls to defend abortion rights. Democrats are being strategic in response by preparing abortion ballot measures in key swing states in next year’s general election, including Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada.
Abortion will also figure heavily into elections in the battleground of Wisconsin, which has a draconian abortion law still on the books but where gerrymandered maps may get overturned by a state supreme court with a new liberal majority. Voters may actually have a fair chance to oust Republicans from state legislative power for the first time in over a decade.
Some extremists in the GOP are likely to argue that the problem with the party’s position on abortion is that it doesn’t go far enough. They will point to the failure of the 15-week compromise in Virginia as evidence that this doesn’t work, and that what leaders ought to be doing is focusing on the “evils” of the procedure and calling for stricter bans.
That of course would be a big mistake, but the GOP might be caught here by its own extremism. With a new Christo-nationalist Speaker and religious extremists in charge of party apparatuses around the country, the party’s room to maneuver will be quite limited. Rather than learn to moderate its stance on abortion, the GOP is likely instead in many instances to double down on it, including on issues such as the legality of the abortion medication, mifepristone.
In short, far from settling the question of abortion by “handing it back to the states,” the Republicans have ignited a nationwide movement, fought in the trenches at the state level, to regain important rights lost after Roe was overturned. That movement, if the energy looks anything like it did on Tuesday, may prove decisive in 2024.