Eight years of Donald Trump’s chaotic leadership, a House Republican conference in turmoil and one very big Supreme Court decision on abortion rights have combined to produce untold damage to the Republican Party, a reality that hit home with special force in elections on Tuesday.
Voters delivered very few bright spots for Republicans and much to worry about. Once again, Democrats outperformed expectations, as they did in the 2022 midterm elections. If not a blue wave on Tuesday night, the results reinforced the worries among some Republicans that their brand has become too toxic to many voters and that whatever weaknesses they see in President Biden, their own problems are acute.
For Democrats, Tuesday’s results were an antidote to recent polls, national and in key states, showing Biden losing to Trump. “Polls don’t vote” quickly became a post-Tuesday mantra for the president’s allies and advocates, though Biden’s challenges are serious and will remain. Before anyone projects too far ahead, Tuesday’s results — concentrated in a few states and with voter turnout lower than it is likely to be a year from now when Americans everywhere will vote for president — are not a reliable indicator of what lies ahead.
Biden’s brand is clearly suffering, and many Democrats are worried about that. Democrats have fissures within their coalition. The world is unstable. Events are unpredictable. Nothing about Tuesday erases that. But the results showed again that Democrats have found the ingredients to produce victories in real elections despite their own weaknesses.
Recent elections have shown that Democrats are better organized than Republicans, thanks to tireless work that goes on year-round in many battleground states. Democrats have shown the ability to raise buckets of money and thus outspend their opponents in advertising. They did so by 2 to 1 on the Ohio abortion referendum. Most critically, they have seized on two issues — abortion and Republican extremism — to put Republicans on the defensive. This has produced a powerful election machine that Republicans are scrambling to match.
Republicans have created many of their own problems, as Tuesday’s results showed again.
The abortion issue has proved to be the biggest political game changer in recent memory. Regardless of the legal arguments of the conservative justices on the Supreme Court who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade in the summer of 2022, the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has shown itself to be an enormous political gift to the Democrats. It has been a gift in part because Republicans had no post-Roe game plan, just as they had no game plan to replace the Affordable Care Act after calling repeatedly for its repeal.
Republicans have no consensus and no sound messaging to counter the backlash against the removal of a constitutional right that had existed for half a century. In every case where the issue has been put directly to the voters, abortion rights supporters have been victorious. That started in Kansas soon after the high court decision in 2022. The potency of the issue carried through the midterm elections, and now again through to Ohio on Tuesday.
No one should assume it won’t be a big factor in 2024. Every time there have been questions about the staying power of the issue to motivate voters, those questions have been answered with evidence of support for abortion rights — and with sizable majorities. The results in Ohio, a state Trump carried by eight percentage points in 2020, were identical to the results of a similar referendum a year ago in Michigan, a state Biden carried by three percentage points in 2020. In both states, affirming abortion rights into the state constitution was approved with 57 percent of the vote. In very red Kansas, a state Trump won by 15 percentage points, it was 59 percent.
The Ohio vote, as much as it helped frame Tuesday’s results as a defeat for Republicans, should not be overstated, however. There is nothing that suggests the Buckeye state will turn blue in next year’s presidential election. Ballot initiatives are far different than election contests between candidates.
But the election results in Virginia offer other indicators of problems for Republicans. The legislative elections in Virginia were widely viewed as a test of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his effort to steer a course that neither fully embraced Trump nor fully rejected him, seeking to prove that his call for a “limit” on abortion after 15 weeks, with exceptions, was a stance that could play well enough in the suburbs to neutralize the issue.
Youngkin’s hope was that his brand of conservative politics would result in voters giving him full control of the legislature. He hoped to flip control of a state Senate that was narrowly in Democratic hands while holding on to the narrow Republican majority in the state House. Instead, Democrats held the Senate and took control of the House. In some key districts, Democratic messaging was focused heavily on abortion.
The Virginia results have tarnished Youngkin and will likely quiet any talk of him becoming a late entrant into the contest for the Republican presidential election — though that talk was more fanciful than real, given the procedural problems of mounting a presidential campaign from scratch and the strength of Trump as the favorite for the nomination.
Youngkin could not isolate himself from the overall debate about the future of abortion rights, with other Republican-controlled states like Florida under Gov. Ron DeSantis having already approved bans on abortion after six weeks; with some Republicans around the country calling for bans with no exceptions; and with talk among some opponents of abortion rights about seeking a national ban on abortions. He learned that the Republican Party is still Trump’s party, which is to say anathema to many voters, and that the abortion issue is one Republicans still haven’t figured out how to navigate.
In Kentucky, Republican Daniel Cameron, the state attorney general who ran for governor, also learned of the consequences of being part of Trump’s party. He tied himself to the former president, basked in Trump’s endorsement, yet fell to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear on Tuesday in a state Trump won by 26 points in 2020.
Trump is likely to win Kentucky again next year if he is the GOP nominee, but in this year and this statewide race, Beshear proved the more capable candidate with the smarter strategy. He played the abortion card effectively, kept his distance from an unpopular Biden and preached unity over partisan warfare.
It helped to be an incumbent and that his father, Steve Beshear, had earlier served as governor, and a popular one. But his message of working across party lines whenever possible is one that Biden preached in 2020 and has continued to espouse as president. Ironically, Beshear’s national profile was lifted by Tuesday’s results rather than Youngkin’s.
Trump and the Supreme Court decision have been powerful factors in the shaping of public perceptions of the Republican Party. But so too have Republican lawmakers. The elections came at a time when House Republicans have put on a display that has undermined confidence in the party’s ability to govern. The spectacle has affected perceptions of the Republicans in the House and has put their narrow majority at risk.
The weeks-long effort to elect a speaker to replace the ousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the decision to elect Speaker Mike Johnson (La.), little known and among the most socially conservative Republicans in the House, played into Democratic claims that the party of Trump is not only unfit for governing but too extreme for many American voters.
Tuesday’s elections couldn’t answer questions about what might happen in 2024. No off-year elections do that. But they were a reminder that Americans are weighing a variety of factors as they assess their choices — and that when a majority say they think the country is heading in the wrong direction, that isn’t solely because they are unhappy with Biden.