Democrats on Wednesday seized on a banner off-year election as fresh evidence that they have a powerful message heading into 2024, even as they wrestled with lingering concerns about President Biden’s unpopularity.
The party took control of the state legislature in battleground Virginia, held the governorship in deep-red Kentucky and got affirmation that abortion rights remains a strong issue for them more than a year after the Supreme Court upended Roe v. Wade. In red-leaning Ohio, voters chose to amend their state constitution to guarantee access to abortion, leaving Republicans dismayed and soul-searching about a strategy that has led them to loss after loss.
Democrats voiced cautious optimism about the gains, with party leaders and elected officials seeing them as a potential blueprint for next year. Their takeaways: It will be crucial to drive home a contrast on abortion and other issues with Donald Trump and “MAGA Republicans” — rather than be drawn into a referendum on Biden, some said, amid anxiety about the president’s age and low approval numbers.
“We just keep rising from the dead like the music video ‘Thriller,’” Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha said. “Democrats have huge momentum on an issue set that just keeps proving over and over again to be a successful strategy — and this strategy is based around people being very upset about [abortion] and people really not wanting to give Republicans, the MAGA party, the keys to the car.”
For Republicans, Tuesday’s elections were another concerning setback — the latest in a series of mostly disappointing elections since 2017, when Trump was president. Now the dominant polling leader in the GOP race, Trump is seeking to lead his party into the next election as a polarizing figure facing four criminal indictments. Beyond Trump’s image, Republicans continue to struggle with messaging on abortion and how to handle attacks on the extreme positions and rhetoric he and other GOP candidates have adopted.
To the Biden campaign and many allies, Tuesday’s results were a vindication of their 2024 strategy, and a sign that people should stop panicking about polling that has Biden trailing Trump in swing states. But Democrats are still grappling with a disconnect between their repeated strong showings at the ballot box and Biden’s low approval ratings — which have led plenty of Democratic candidates to conclude they need to separate themselves from their party leader’s brand.
Asked Wednesday if Biden is the party’s best messenger for 2024, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) — who faces a tough reelection battle in a red state — simply said, “I think he is the messenger.”
“The truth is, I’m running my own race,” Tester added. “Joe’s going to run his race.”
David Axelrod, the chief strategist on Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, said Tuesday’s results were a welcome, continued repudiation of Republicans’ stance on abortion and other issues — but do not change his recent suggestion that Biden consider whether running again is in his best interest or the country’s. Biden’s age remains a concern for voters, the country is in a “sour” mood, and voters have a “selective memory about what the Trump years were like,” he said. “People need to be reminded of that.”
Biden campaign officials have argued that metrics such as presidential approval are no longer predictive of ballot results, a point driven home in the 2022 midterms and again Tuesday night. Democratic wins came even as Gallup was tracking significant month-over-month declines in Biden approval below 40 percent.
“We said yesterday that, despite the media’s insistence on salivating over a few bad polls for the president and ignoring every other poll that has him leading or ahead of Donald Trump, the bottom line is that polls a year out from the election don’t matter — results do,” Biden campaign spokesman Michael Tyler wrote in an email to supporters early Wednesday.
The strategy is to replicate the contrast that Democrats were able to establish Tuesday night: that regardless of Biden’s weaknesses, voters in battleground states keep rejecting what Republicans are selling.
Analyzing their losses, some Republicans were blunt about the need to recalibrate. Republicans have had repeated letdowns in elections since Trump’s rise, and voter backlash over Roe’s fall has only appeared to increase their challenges.
“For pro lifers, last night was a gut punch. No sugar coating it,” Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) said in a lengthy post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, outlining why he thought Republicans got “creamed” on Ohio’s Issue 1, the ballot measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution.
“[We] have to recognize how much voters mistrust us (meaning elected Republicans) on this issue,” Vance wrote. “Having an unplanned pregnancy is scary. Best case, you’re looking at social scorn and thousands of dollars of unexpected medical bills. We need people to see us as the pro-life party, not just the anti-abortion party.”
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the leading antiabortion group SBA Pro-Life America, said in a statement Wednesday that the elections were a “warning sign for the GOP heading into 2024,” noting that Democrats far outspent Republicans on abortion-related TV ads in Virginia. “Candidates must put money and messaging toward countering the Democrats’ attacks or they will lose every time,” she said.
In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and GOP candidates embraced a proposal to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, seeking to appeal to moderates by framing it as a “reasonable limit” that would let most abortions continue, rather than a “ban.”
But voters handed narrow control of the House of Delegates back to Democrats, wiping out GOP hopes they’d found a winning message on abortion — even as some conservatives argued the close results in Virginia were not necessarily a repudiation of their latest messaging shift.
“Republicans don’t have a messaging problem on those issues — they have a policy problem,” argued Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.). “They keep saying, ‘Oh, we need to fix our message.’ No! You need to fix what your position is.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said Republican leaders in some states are being pushed into supporting policies on abortion that they know most of the electorate doesn’t want.
Democrats didn’t win, he said. “Republicans lost.”
Biden himself often focuses on economic issues — nearly every week holding an event touting “Bidenomics” — and he rarely mentions abortion. There has long been a recognition that Biden — an 80-year-old White man and the most devout Catholic president in American history — is not ideally positioned to motivate voters who are passionate about female reproductive rights.
Both the White House and Biden’s reelection campaign on Wednesday tied the latest victories more broadly to Biden’s agenda than to specifics such as abortion. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre used the Kentucky governor’s race as an example of Biden’s agenda winning — even though Democratic incumbent Gov. Andy Beshear distanced himself from Biden.
Beshear “ran on infrastructure, he ran on lowering costs for the American people,” Jean-Pierre said. “Those are parts of the agenda that the president has led on.”
The White House did spotlight abortion, however, in statements released shortly after Tuesday’s results were known.
“Tonight, Americans once again voted to protect their fundamental freedoms — and democracy won,” Biden said. “My Administration will continue to protect access to reproductive health care and call on Congress to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade in federal law once and for all.”
Playing down early polls, Biden aides and Democratic pollsters argue that voters will reevaluate once it is clear that Biden is the Democratic nominee, and the only alternative to Trump. Their task in the short term, they say, is to stick to their plan of building out a campaign and raising money for a media blitz next year to boost the president.
Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, said he has been waving off concerns about polling a year out from the 2024 election — but emphasized to Democrats that they need to increase outreach among Black voters, especially in rural areas.
“The sky’s not falling, but don’t act like there’s not some drizzle coming down,” Albright said, worrying that if Democrats rely too much on voter enthusiasm in the post-Roe era, it could dampen the urgency of engaging Black voters.
“The party has really been riding the Dobbs wave, and it’s really masking over some fundamental flaws,” Albright said, referencing the Supreme Court ruling that struck down Roe.
Michael Scherer, Paul Kane and Azi Paybarah contributed to this report.