This week got off to a bad start for Democrats, with a set of disastrous new poll numbers showing that Joe Biden trailed Trump in five of the six most important swing states. But by Tuesday night, things were looking up.
Because the party won big in a slate of elections.
To recap those results:
In deep-red Kentucky, Democrat Andy Beshear cruised to reelection as governor. Four years ago, Beshear won by less than half a point. This year he won by five points.
In Virginia, Democrats triumphed in statehouse elections, holding on to the Senate and gaining control of the House—which squelched the hype surrounding rising Republican star, Governor Glenn Youngkin.
Ohio voters, by a 12-point margin, backed an amendment that enshrines the right to abortion in the state constitution.
And in Pennsylvania, Democrat Dan McCaffery won the race to fill an open seat on the state’s supreme court, tipping the balance heavily in the Dems’ favor with five justices to two Republicans.
Explaining his win, McCaffery told Politico the top issue was “100 percent” abortion rights, and Biden wasn’t a factor at all. It was a similar story nationwide, with abortion serving as an electoral tailwind for Democrats across the country.
Take Ohio: the state backed Trump by eight points both in 2016 and 2020, and, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision striking down Roe v. Wade, Republican governor Mike DeWine passed a stringent “heartbeat” abortion ban. But this week the pro-choice side won big. In Virginia, Youngkin tried to tackle the abortion issue head-on, pushing for a ban after 15 weeks—a more moderate option than the restrictions signed into law by DeWine, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, and others.
That didn’t seem to work either.
If our politics is in the middle of a big scramble—and we think it is; just look at the fact that RFK Jr. wins nearly a quarter of the vote in a hypothetical three-way contest with Trump and Biden—Dobbs is clearly a major factor, accelerating some trends, counteracting others, and further complicating an already volatile landscape. To wit: How many politically homeless voters might be voting Republican by now were it not for the salience of such a polarizing issue?
In last night’s Republican presidential debate, candidates were asked about abortion’s impact on the party’s presidential chances in 2024. Nikki Haley said she was “unapologetically pro-life” but urged her colleagues to be honest about what restrictions would be possible at a federal level. Ron DeSantis restated his support for “a culture of life.” Vivek Ramaswamy slammed a Republican “culture of losing.” Tim Scott made the case for a 15-week federal abortion ban. Chris Christie said he trusted Americans to make a decision on abortion limits “state by state.”
Democrats will have enjoyed watching them grasp for a satisfactory answer. But is the issue enough to paper over the many problems troubling the Democratic brand? Problems like an aging president dogged by claims of nepotistic corruption who, at 80 years old, most Americans do not think is mentally or physically up to the job? Or a progressive wing that has disgraced itself in the weeks since the October 7 attack on Israel?
And which party should be more worried about 2024?
For clarity on how Republicans should handle the abortion issue, we chatted to eagle-eyed observer of the Republican Party Matthew Continetti. For answers on how concerned Democrats should be about those dire Biden polling numbers, we turned to forecasting guru Nate Silver. Scroll down for their answers.
And don’t miss Peter Savodnik’s take on last night’s debate, in which the contenders grappled with meaty foreign policy questions, one candidate called another “scum,” and a third soft-launched his new girlfriend.
Matthew Continetti is the author of The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism and an invaluable guide to the big-picture questions about Republican Party politics. I asked him if GOP candidates should be worried about the question of abortion—and whether they can find a more effective message on the issue.
I think at this point it’s inescapable that abortion is a political liability for Republicans. Since the Dobbs decision last June, Republicans have underperformed in election after election. And whether that is special elections, whether that is the ballot initiatives in red states, whether that’s the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, whether that’s Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky this week, I think it’s clear that all these elections are part of a pattern, and the pattern suggests that if the issue is abortion, the Democratic side will win.
The exception is that pro-life governors were reelected last year. People like Kim Reynolds in Iowa, Ron DeSantis in Florida, and Mike DeWine in Ohio. I think those candidates benefited from two things. One, the elections were choices between candidates, not up and down referenda on abortion. And two, they were experienced incumbents who could offer the electorate popular policies on the economy, education, crime, and other social issues.
But for novices, for challengers in open races, abortion is a severe liability. And it’s unclear to me how you go about addressing it, because many Republicans since 2022 have tried to avoid the issue. And many of them have lost. And then, in this past election, Glenn Youngkin tried to fight into the ambush by rallying his candidates around a 15-week limit. But he failed in his objective to capture both chambers of the state legislature. So if you don’t talk about it, you let the pro-choice side define you. If you do talk about it, it doesn’t seem to have much of an effect, because the electorate basically approaches the issue that it will resist any attempt to limit the practice.
It’s good to have something like the 15-week limit. But you also have to make the election about more than one issue. In Mississippi, of course it’s a deep-red state, but Tate Reeves kept the governor’s mansion by talking about the economy. I wonder if Youngkin had spent more time on the economy whether his candidates might have done a little bit better.
But I look at all these election results and it’s hard to say there’s a clear path. Now, there are two candidates in the presidential race who seem to have finessed it to some extent. There is Trump, who is triangulating away from the pro-life movement, at no cost to him in the primary or, it seems, in the general. And there’s also Nikki Haley, who has also distanced herself from attempts to restrict abortion and is doing well in Iowa and elsewhere. So maybe they will show that there’s a way that you can kind of finesse this issue. It’s hard to say, because the data is confusing. There are pro-lifers who win, but when the issue is up or down pro-choice or pro-restriction, the pro-choice side wins.
And on the other side of the aisle, with a year still to go until the election, how worried should Democrats be about the polls showing Biden’s advanced age is a major liability?
There’s no one I’d rather ask about that question than Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight.com, now writing at his must-read Substack Silver Bulletin. I asked him: What’s a better signal of the Democratic Party’s chances next year—the national polls or this week’s election?
It’s so much easier to say, “Oh, the actual election results are more important,” but if you’re trying to predict a presidential race, I’m not sure a gubernatorial race in Kentucky or a ballot referendum in Ohio tells you very much.
The thing that would worry me if I were a Democrat is that the polls show that people are sick of Joe Biden. They show that if you replace Biden with a hypothetical unnamed generic Democrat, that generic Democrat does something like 13 points better. And it’s always a “grass is greener” thing, because you can imagine your favorite candidate. But the actual candidate has to be a compromise. Still, voters—especially low-turnout voters, younger voters, black and Hispanic voters—are sending a pretty clear message. They are saying, “Look, we’re just tired of this guy.”
But to replace a candidate at this point in time is a big risk. A huge risk. First, you don’t know who you’re going to get instead. Second, you don’t know if they’re battle ready. Whereas Biden did win last time. He’s done it before. So it’s a big risk, but it’s something Democrats have to think about because the message is coming very clearly from the polls. The public is saying: can you please nominate somebody other than Biden or Trump? That is part of the reason why RFK Jr. is getting 20 percent in some of these polls. It’s the highest a third-party candidate has had since Ross Perot in 1992. This is an unusual signal the public is sending.
The age thing is like 90 percent of it. There’s some degree of common sense priced into that assessment. Biden is at an age where people decline cognitively. And I think it’s perilous for Democrats to ignore this clear message that voters are sending.
And finally. . . about last night.
If you watched yesterday’s primary GOP debate, you might have heard one of the moderators, Hugh Hewitt, quote from an essay by Rep. Mike Gallagher on why TikTok should be banned. If the words sounded familiar, that’s because we published that essay.
Hugh, glad you’re a reader! Next time we’d love a name-check :)
But beyond the Bravo-style drama, what was the real takeaway from last night’s debate, especially given Trump’s huge lead in the polls?
For that, read my colleague Peter Savodnik:
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