It was another huge night for Democrats—and democracy.
In deep-red Kentucky, voters overwhelmingly reelected Democratic Governor Andy Beshear over Daniel Cameron—the Donald Trump-backed challenger. In a blow to Republican rising star Glenn Youngkin, Virginia voters gave Democrats both chambers of the general assembly, preventing the conservative governor from getting the rubber stamp he’d sought and from enacting his proposed 15-week abortion ban. And speaking of abortion: Ohio became the seventh state since the fall of Roe to codify abortion protections into law Tuesday, as Buckeye voters approved a ballot measure to enshrine reproductive rights into the state constitution.
It wasn’t a clean sweep; scandal-plagued Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves held off Brandon Presley, the cousin of rock ‘n’ roll royalty who had mounted a formidable Democratic challenge in the conservative state. But if the GOP’s consolation in Tuesday’s off-year election is Hey, at least we’ve still got Mississippi!…well, that’s really not much consolation at all. “Across the country tonight,” as President Joe Biden wrote, “democracy won and MAGA lost.”
Beyond the immediate implications for the residents of Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia—who managed to maintain at least some check on state Republican power—the off-year election may also carry significant implications for next year’s presidential race. Though, the precise message voters sent Tuesday is something of a political Rorschach test.
To Biden, whose approval ratings are underwater amid concerns about his age, the strong performance is a sign that the scary polls recently are nothing for Democrats to get up in arms about—just the latest instance in which the president has been badly underestimated. “Voters vote,” he wrote Tuesday. “Polls don’t.”
But to Democrats concerned about surveys showing Biden trailing Trump in five of six swing states? The outperformance of expectations in this year’s race—and last year’s—simply underscores the president’s weakness as a candidate: Even as voters show approval of Democrats and their policies at the ballot box, they can’t quite muster enthusiasm for Biden himself. “Biden appears to be less popular than some of his party’s policies and some of its other candidates, raising the possibility that someone else would be better at keeping the Democratic coalition together next year,” as CNN’s Stephen Collinson put it Wednesday.
I suspect reality might lie somewhere between the sunny outlook of the Biden camp and the doom-and-gloom of the party’s nail-biters. Biden has, indeed, exceeded expectations throughout his presidency—but that doesn’t mean the streak will continue, especially as he attends to a growing portfolio of domestic and international crises. Bad polling, particularly a year out from Election Day 2024, should be taken with a grain of salt. But brushing it off, as Biden has seemed to at times, is to overlook the unfortunate fact that a country capable of electing Trump once is absolutely capable of doing so again.
On the other hand, Trump himself remains immensely unpopular outside of his base. And whatever gripes Americans might have about Biden, there’s a good chance they’ll be willing to temporarily put those aside if the alternative is an aspiring autocrat who is presumably running, in no small part, to avoid going to prison.
And if the prospect of a second Trump administration isn’t enough to drive voters to Biden and the Democrats next year, Tuesday’s results would seem to suggest that abortion will. Reproductive rights continue to prove a winning issue for Democrats and a big loser for Republicans, whose preoccupation with culture war issues—which involve creepy and dangerous efforts to police the bodies, reading habits, and more of their constituents—seems to be alienating those outside their right-wing echo chamber. The hope for Biden? That he can keep riding the blue wave that’s washed over the country in recent cycles. “Voters in 2022 and ‘23 have showed up for Democrats and our issues when the stakes are very high,” as Matt Bennett, co-founder of center-left group Third Way, told ABC News. “That’s the best news out of tonight, because the 2024 stakes are very high.”
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