Democrats came away the clear winners of 2023’s off-year elections, with a string of wins across red-tinted and swing states showing the party can overcome President Joe Biden’s unpopularity with a focus on electable candidates and abortion access.
The results give Democrats something to celebrate just days after new polling showed Biden trailing former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, in several key swing states over concerns about Biden’s age and the direction of the economy. Democrats are defending not only the presidency next year but also a narrow Senate majority in states that Trump won and where he remains popular, so their balance of power in Washington hangs in the balance.
It wasn’t all wins for Democrats. The Republican Party managed to keep its governor in office in Mississippi despite the Democratic challenger’s call to expand Medicaid — an outcome that revealed the limits of the Democratic brand in conservative Southern states.
In the end, the GOP’s messaging on cultural issues, such as gender-affirming therapy for transgender minors, wasn’t nearly as potent as Democrats’ call to action on preserving abortion rights.
Joe Biden May Be In Trouble, But He’s Not Yet A Drag On Democrats Down Ballot
Discussion of Biden’s weak political standing has dominated the political world in recent days following the release of a suite of New York Times polls on Sunday showing him trailing Trump in five out of six key battleground states. The surveys also showed Biden’s standing slipping with Black and Latino voters in particular, accelerating a troubling trend for Democrats with two core components of the party’s base.
But Biden’s low approval rating and standing in the polls, a year before the 2024 presidential election, did not have a clear effect on Democrats in competitive races Tuesday. Those results are consistent with a strong Democratic performance in special elections this year, which is often a predictor of performance in subsequent federal elections.
In the sole statewide race in a presidential swing state, Democrat Daniel McCaffery won an open Pennsylvania Supreme Court seat by a comfortable margin, preserving Democrats’ 5-2 majority on the high court. Pennsylvania Democrats also maintained their control of the Allegheny County executive office, albeit by a much smaller margin than might have been anticipated.
In blue-tinted Virginia, which elected a Republican governor in 2021, Democrats maintained their hold on the state Senate and gained a slight majority in the House of Delegates. The shift will create a stronger check on Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
And the anti-Biden headwinds were not strong enough for Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) to dislodge Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in a state that Trump carried by 26 percentage points in 2020.
Kentucky Values, a group affiliated with the Republican Governors Association, touted Cameron’s endorsement from Trump in a TV ad, as well as lawsuits he’s brought against the Biden administration. Another spot aired audio of Biden thanking Beshear and tried to link the governor to Biden’s “radical transgender agenda.”
Some of the gap can be explained by Democrats’ increasing superiority among college-educated voters, who are more likely to turn out in comparatively low-turnout off-year races. Even so, the delta between Tuesday’s results and what you would expect from a party whose president has an approval rating in the high 30s is tough to explain.
There are two ways to spin the resulting gap: One is to say that for all of Biden’s weaknesses, voters still prefer his Democratic Party over a MAGA-led Republican Party. The other is to argue that Biden’s weaknesses, especially his age, are his own. The latter interpretation will only increase the almost-certainly fruitless chatter about replacing him with another Democratic presidential nominee.
Abortion Rights Stays A Winning Issue
Tuesday’s races proved once again that abortion rights are a winning issue at the ballot box, with enough momentum to carry an entire Democratic ticket.
The headline of the evening was Ohio’s passage of Issue 1, a ballot measure that codifies abortion rights in the state Constitution following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last summer. Broad support for Issue 1 across a state that voted twice for Trump bolsters the argument of abortion rights advocates that given the chance to weigh in directly on abortion access, voters in both red and blue states will decide in favor of protections.
Even though Ohio was the only direct referendum on abortion rights Tuesday, abortion access loomed large in other states. In Kentucky, Democrats argued that a Republican governor would never sign a law adding exceptions for rape and incest to the state’s already restrictive abortion law. In Virginia, Democrats were projected to win full control of the state legislature by reminding voters that GOP wins would lead to a 15-week abortion ban, which Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin had vowed to sign into law.
There is no reason to think the issue’s potency will dissipate before the next election. Referendums on abortion rights are set to be on the ballot in Arizona, Florida and Missouri next year, and will be a major issue for both President Biden and congressional Democrats in 2024.
The ‘Boring’ Governor Brand Could Be Big In 2028
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear continued to prove that “boring” governors often finish first as the Trump-state Democrat easily fended off a challenge from Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron.
Expect to hear a lot over the next several months about the Democrat with the blueprint for winning Trump country. As the son of former Gov. Steve Beshear, the family name may explain some of his success. But mild-mannered Beshear also showed that Democrats can navigate tough terrain by keeping the national party and its messaging at arm’s length, focusing instead on the unsexy business of actually, you know, governing.
Beshear’s name is likely to come up as Democrats look to the 2028 presidential race, which may hinge on whether the party is able to rebrand itself across much of the South and Midwest. Beshear has shown he can convince skeptical moderates and even Republicans to ignore the D next to his name, making him a prized commodity for the left’s future electoral maps.
That Beshear is one of the nation’s most popular governors and from a state where a majority of residents do not share his political affiliation isn’t a coincidence. The most popular governors of the last decade tend to be from states where their party does not control the legislature and are therefore powerless to enact an actual legislative agenda. Think Larry Hogan, the former GOP governor of bright-blue Maryland who briefly floated running for president in 2024, and Phil Scott, the perennially popular Republican governor of liberal Vermont. Both are Republicans who smartly steered clear of the GOP mess in Washington and Donald Trump.
Unlike these more moderate Republicans — or fellow Trump-state Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, an anti-abortion Democrat — Beshear’s record on social issues isn’t so out of step with his party that it would instantly doom a presidential bid.
Transphobia Lost At The Polls In Kentucky
In two key states, Republicans’ attacks on transgender rights did little to either sway swing voters or spike GOP turnout.
Allies of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron spent $5.2 million on ads hammering Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear for vetoing the GOP state legislature’s adoption of a blanket ban on gender-affirming medical care, the teaching of gender identity in the classroom and allowing schoolkids to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity. (The legislature, which has a Republican supermajority in both chambers, overrode the veto.)
The American Principles Project PAC, a socially conservative group, aired several TV ads on the topic. “Why is Andy Beshear vetoing legislation that protects kids from permanent, harmful and sterilizing sex change drugs and procedures?” the narrator of one such ad asks as ominous music plays.
Beshear has said he does not support sex changes for minors, and his opposition to the blanket ban was ultimately moot. But his victory continues a trend of Democrats easily brushing aside GOP attacks on transgender rights, following wins in 2022’s gubernatorial races in Kansas and Michigan.
Brandon Presley’s Black Outreach Falls Short In Mississippi
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Brandon Presley, an elected public utility commissioner, promised to break with his immediate Democratic predecessor, then-Attorney General Jim Hood, by more proactively courting Black voters. It was simple math: Given the vanishingly small percentage of white Mississippians willing to vote for anyone but a Republican, a Democrat must elicit high turnout among the more than 35% of state voters who are Black.
Presley, by all accounts, delivered on that promise. He courted Black voters aggressively in person at churches and homecoming football games and in advertisements on Black radio stations. His efforts ― and the foibles of his opponent, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves ― inspired hope and financial support from the national party.
Black turnout was poor across the country in 2022, and Biden continues to struggle with Black voters, especially men and young people, compared with past Democratic presidents. To the extent Presley could have provided a guidepost, Democrats will need to look elsewhere.
Progressives Eat Humble Pie In The Pittsburgh Area
In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which is home to Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs, progressive candidates suffered some setbacks.
Former state Rep. Sara Innamorato (D) won the race for Allegheny County executive by about 2 percentage points. That was a close call for Democrats in a normally reliably blue county that Biden carried by 20 percentage points in 2020 and that Daniel McCaffery, the Democratic state Supreme Court candidate, carried by more than 25 percentage points.
To be sure, Innamorato’s Republican opponent, former financial services executive Joe Rockey, had a massive fundraising advantage over her, helping him shape the air wars. But Rockey was also able to draw upon suspicion of Innamorato’s progressive roots, including her past membership in the Democratic Socialists of America. A more conservative building trades union’s endorsement of Rockey may have helped create an impression for some voters that he was a genuine moderate, even as Innamorato highlighted Rockey’s refusal to state his personal view on abortion rights.
Innamorato, who defeated two more establishment-friendly candidates in the May primary, has no shortage of enemies among the region’s traditional Democratic stakeholders. Her opposition to natural gas fracking has been a particular sore point with some labor unions.
Fairly or not, moderate Democrats in Allegheny County, who have been losing ground steadily since 2018, will use Innamorato’s close call to argue that nominees from the party’s left wing jeopardize Democrats’ hold on key offices. U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.), an ally and former colleague of Innamorato’s, now faces multiple primary challenges from candidates taking issue with her calls for a more even-handed approach to the Israel-Hamas conflict.
The results in other key county races were even worse for progressives. Matt Dugan defeated District Attorney Steve Zappala in the Democratic primary in May, but Zappala narrowly won the general election after supporters successfully wrote him in to become the Republican nominee for district attorney. Two left-wing Allegheny County council candidates, Carl Redwood and Sam Schmidt, also lost their bids.