In the face of President Joe Biden’s slumping poll numbers, Democrats amassed big electoral wins around the country on Tuesday.
From winning the marquee race for governor in Kentucky and a key ballot measure in Ohio to securing majorities in Virginia’s state legislature, Democrats prevailed, with access to abortion front and center.
The lessons about messaging, particularly on abortion, will reverberate longer than the 2023 results themselves. Democrats will be emboldened to run on access to abortion in contests around the country in 2024, while Republicans are still searching for ways to answer concerns that they would ban all access to legal abortion, or to change the subject altogether.
The good news for Republicans is that most of the 2023 races had little to do with Biden, who is still an unpopular incumbent running for reelection and will be a focal point in 2024. For now, Republicans are left wondering how to move on from a big night for Democrats.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear won reelection in Kentucky by about 5 percentage points, defeating Republican state Attorney General Daniel Cameron in the marquee race of the cycle.
It’s not surprising that Kentucky elected a Democrat, as the commonwealth has had a Democratic governor for all but eight of the past 51 years, but Beshear’s margin of victory was stunning and showed the limits of Republican attacks.
Beshear’s victory is a piece of good news for Democratic senators such as Jon Tester of Montana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who are facing reelection in hostile partisan environments next year. Beshear, the son of former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, showed it’s possible to cultivate a political brand that transcends partisanship, and his fundraising advantage gave him the ability to cement that brand.
Overall, Democrats outspent Republicans $48 million to $29 million on television ads, including Beshear’s sizable advantage over Cameron. As in 2022, the same dynamic could take place in key 2024 Senate races, in spite of GOP efforts to fix the problem of underfunded challengers by recruiting self-funders in several key states.
Republican efforts to drag Beshear down with Biden didn’t work, nor did their efforts to pull Cameron up with former President Donald Trump. GOP attacks against Beshear on transgender issues weren’t effective either, even in a Republican state, which could influence how Republicans go after Democrats in more competitive states and districts next year.
Even though Kentucky is far from a presidential battleground, it has been a decent bellwether. The last five races for governor in the Bluegrass State have lined up with the following year’s presidential winner, going back to Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s win in 2003. Steve Beshear’s victories in 2007 and 2011 preceded both of Barack Obama’s presidential wins. Republican Matt Bevin’s 2015 victory preceded Trump’s rise. And Andy Beshear’s defeat of Bevin in 2019 came ahead of Biden’s defeat of Trump.
Beshear’s victory also has potential implications for the U.S. Senate, specifically if Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., resigns before his term ends. Republican state legislators passed a law requiring the governor to make an appointment from a list of three potential successors from the same party as the outgoing senator. But Beshear has said he believes the law is unconstitutional, so there’s a risk of McConnell being replaced by a Democrat and affecting the balance of power in the Senate.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves defeated Democratic Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, 52 percent to 47 percent, in Mississippi. Unlike other races around the country on Tuesday, Reeves’ underperformance had more to do with his own scandals, rather than access to abortion or presidential politics.
Issue 1, which enshrines reproductive rights in the state constitution, passed by a wide margin, 57 percent to 43 percent, in a resounding victory for Democrats and the abortion rights movement. On the heels of previous victories on abortion rights referenda in Kansas and Michigan, the Ohio result will embolden Democrats to continue to run on the issue into the 2024 elections.
Democrats even used the abortion issue against Cameron in Kentucky’s gubernatorial race. It’s impossible to isolate a single issue in a complex campaign, but there’s no evidence it hindered Beshear winning reelection and may have helped him.
Races in Virginia tend to get a disproportionate amount of attention because national political reporters see ads for the Virginia races in the Washington, D.C., media market. Recent weekends watching football have been filled with political attack ads.
This year’s races gained even more attention because GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s efforts to control the General Assembly kindled talk of a presidential run. But murmurs of that long-shot bid likely died on Tuesday when Republicans failed to take control of the state Senate and lost their majority in the state House. And Youngkin’s attempt to soften the GOP’s image on abortion by publicly supporting a 15-week ban, as opposed to something stricter, wasn’t effective enough either.
Although there are still some close races that haven’t been called, Democrats are projected to hold the state Senate and take over the state House. Coming into Election Day, Republicans had a 52-48 advantage in the state House and Democrats had a 22-18 advantage in the state Senate. Even though his name wasn’t on the ballot, Youngkin went all in and was defeated.
Rhode Island special election
Former Biden administration official Gabe Amo won Rhode Island’s 1st District special election, 65 percent to 35 percent, to replace former Democratic Rep. David Cicilline. Amo will become the state’s first Black member of Congress. He already did the hard work in the election by winning the crowded Democratic primary on Sept. 5 with 32 percent. Tuesday’s general election was more of a formality.
After Amo is sworn in, the lone vacancy will be in Utah’s 2nd District. That is likely to be filled by Republican Celeste Maloy after the special general election on Nov, 21.
In Texas, Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is headed for a Dec. 9 runoff for mayor of Houston against Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire. Whitmire finished first in the field of 18 candidates Tuesday, with 43 percent to Jackson Lee’s 37 percent.
In Colorado, former GOP Rep. Mike Coffman was leading his race for reelection as mayor of Aurora, 55 percent to 38 percent. Coffman was defeated by Democratic Rep. Jason Crow by more than 10 points in the 6th District in 2018 and was elected mayor of Aurora in 2019.
Even though there was some buzz about Republicans making gains in New Jersey’s Democrat-controlled Legislature, Democrats are on track to pick up five seats in the state’s General Assembly.
Democrats retained their 5-2 advantage on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court with Democrat Daniel McCaffrey’s 53 percent to 47 percent win over Republican Carolyn Carluccio. The court’s makeup could matter for future litigation about abortion and election laws.