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24 Takeaways From Tuesday's Off-Year Elections
And how to square the results with Joe Biden's very bad polling
Democrats had a great off-year election night. It was like the inverse of the one they had two years ago, when Glenn Youngkin beat Terry McAuliffe and doomed liberalism through the end of history.
In addition to reunifying Democratic control of the Virginia legislature, setting Youngkin’s political ambitions back a long way (if not all the way), Democrats re-elected Gov. Andy Beshear (D-KY), wrote reproductive rights into the Ohio constitution, and gave an incumbent Republican governor in the deep south a run for his (probably stolen?) money.
More to come Friday, but for now, here are several snap observations:
You have to squint VERY hard to find anything not to like about the returns.
Yes, there are exceptions, but the general pattern of Democrats overperforming in midterm, off-year, and special elections in the Trump era continues.
Over-performing in midterm, off-year, and special elections isn’t necessarily predictive for presidential elections. Republicans did extremely well in lesser elections from 2009-2016, but Barack Obama won the big contest in 2012.
There’s at least some indication that Trump has flipped that old dynamic, when Republicans, with their lock on older voters, enjoyed their best turnout in the lowest-salience elections. Dems seem to have overperformed much more in 2018, 2022, and last night than they did in 2020.
That’s particularly worrisome given the bleak presidential polling environment.
Abortion has not faded as an issue, notwithstanding clumsy Republicans attempts to muddy and lie about it (cf. Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio).
Abortion may not remain an issue if voters don’t know in their marrow that nothing is settled until Roe is restored. Republicans will try to ban abortion nationally if they win a governing trifecta in 2024; failing that, they will try to ban abortion or tighten restrictions in every state where they gain power. Republican victories could easily lead to bans even in states where reproductive rights have been wrested back since Dobbs.
Joe Biden should revive the line I seeded after the Dobbs oral argument in December 2021. Back then it was: Give us two more senators and the House, and I’ll sign a bill to codify Roe in January 2023. Now it can be: Send me back to Washington with one more senator and the House, and I’ll sign a bill to codify Roe in January 2025. And he should say it more frequently and confidently this time.
If I’m a state-level Democratic mover and shaker, I’m doing as much as I can to make sure everyone in free states, no matter how blue, knows that their reproductive rights rest on a knife edge. It would be an incredible political failure if, post Dobbs, people in states like Ohio and Virginia returned to the complacency they felt when Roe was still good law.
Even if it’s unlikely memories will fade so quickly, we have some reason to believe it could happen in theory. It was the pre-Dobbs status quo. Humans are highly adaptable, and always tempted to drop their guard after winning exhausting battles. And we’ve seen something similar happen in past competitive elections, where voters will, e.g., increase their state’s minimum wage by ballot initiative while electing a slate of Republican officeholders.
Corruption remains a huge liability for corrupt politicians, at least when their opponents exploit it (cf. Mississippi). Yes, I know Brandon Presley didn’t win, but it’s typically very hard to knock off an incumbent governor, particularly a Republican in the deep south, and by that standard, Tate Reeves did poorly. He is also mired in corruption scandals.
Anti-trans demagoguery is not the all-powerful wedge issue Republicans hoped it would be.
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The GOP’s certainty that anti-trans politics would snowball into victories in elections resembles the Democratic Party’s fascination with “kitchen-table” rhetoric, in that the parties arrived at their respective conclusions by simplistically following polls.
The similarities end there, of course. Kitchen-table issues are often emotionally inert, but they (thus!) don’t have a magnetic draw on every horrible bigot in the country.
Republicans might’ve thought they could exploit a few struggling teens in a narrow culture war around high school sports fairness. But it turns out you can’t open that door just a crack. Once it’s ajar, toxic people of all kinds come barreling through, and the issue becomes toxic to some of the very voters it was meant to persuade.
It’s very revealing to me that so many Democratic strategists and liberal commentators were scared of the trans-sports issue for the same reason Republicans thought it’d be a winning issue for them: the polls said so. In that sense, the trans-bigotry belly flop is another reminder that issue polls measure a single thing at a precise moment in time, but politics is a many-body problem.
On the other hand, we should not overread things in the other direction: Andy Beshear did not necessarily win because he was humane to trans kids. He’s also an incumbent governor (hard to beat, remember?) and a Kentucky legacy with a deft touch running in the Dobbs era.
I do think Beshear’s victory is an important reminder that Joe Manchinism (that is, all the posturing things that make him so annoying) isn’t the key to winning in Appalachian states or red states or Trump districts. Manchin and Beshear are both legacies in their states, but Beshear won re-election after governing with much more blue-team spirit than Manchin has ever shown, against a Republican supermajority that had all the power it needed to either pull him right or expose him as a bleeding-heart lib. They failed.
As a general rule, the subset of thinkers who argue conspicuous policy moderation—breaking with party orthodoxy—is the key to victory behave as if the most successful Dems holding office in red territory are all like Manchin. Or like Jared Golden in Maine. But the Dem overperformers are like a lot of things! They’re like Manchin and Golden, yes, but also Beshear, Gretchen Whitmer, Sherrod Brown, Jon Tester, Raphael Warnock, Barack Obama…
All of the above adds up to a recipe for Democratic voters to take pride in their success, but remain extremely vigilant and on the offensive.
The same holds for party operatives and Joe Biden himself. Between Tuesday’s elections and the autoworkers’ successful strike, Biden has a bunch of concrete things he can point to as victories that are tangible and don’t challenge the false received wisdom, like his “Bidenomics” tour.
If he can’t transform these assets into improved popularity and better polling numbers, I suspect we’re going to hear a lot more from Democratic pundits and party cheerleaders about the “reverse coattail effect,” whereby Biden could be dragged to victory by a down-ballot environment and issue suite that favors his party.
They didn’t invent the “reverse coattail” concept, and it isn’t crazy to think something like that might happen. Biden could be faring much worse than the national party in polls because of liabilities unique to him (the news environment, his age, the continued existence of global crises when many people hoped booting Trump would restore calm). Democratic voters may tell pollsters they disapprove of Biden, but that doesn’t mean they’ll leave the top of the ticket blank when they march to the polls to vote for Ruben Gallego.
Cope doesn’t have to be crazy.