America’s off-year elections can be summarised by the tale of two promising governors—one who triumphed and another who flopped. On November 7th, Andy Beshear cruised to reelection in Kentucky, one of the reddest states in the country, despite the fact that he is a Democrat. Meanwhile in Virginia, Republican governor Glenn Youngkin, who campaigned for his party’s state candidates as if he were on the ballot himself, suffered a political reverse by losing control of the lower chamber of the state legislature.
Amid doom and gloom over the upcoming presidential election, Democrats won on friendly turf and in enemy territory. In Kentucky Mr Beshear improved markedly from a half-point victory in 2019 to a five-point win. In a sign of his appeal outside of comfortable urban terrain, he managed to win two rural counties that Donald Trump had won by over 50 points in the 2020 presidential election.
In Ohio, a state that Mr Trump handily carried twice, voters chose to break with conservatives and enshrine the right to an abortion in the state constitution. According to analysis by Politico, turnout in the counties that supported Mr Trump was high. But support for abortion exceeded support for President Joe Biden by a margin of ten points. Voters in New Jersey expanded Democratic legislative majorities; those in Pennsylvania added another Democrat to the bench of the state supreme court. Only in Mississippi, deep in the conservative heartland, did Democrats lose a big race (as expected). Even there the challenging candidate Brandon Presley fell two points short of forcing Tate Reeves, the incumbent governor, into a run-off.
What is clear from the results is that the Republican platform of severe restrictions of abortion remains deeply unpopular. Although many conservatives are unwilling to vote for Democratic candidates, they routinely vote against the conservative party if presented with an up-or-down referendum on abortion. In the last year, this has been true in votes in states like Kansas, Kentucky and Wisconsin. Mr Beshear, who is already drawing notice as a potential presidential candidate in 2028, managed to turn the seemingly favourable politics of abortion restriction in Kentucky against his conservative opponent by attacking a legal regime that requires teenage rape victims to carry their pregnancies to term.
Surprisingly the Democratic attack line on abortion worked even when Republicans attempted to moderate. Virginia is a former swing state that has gradually become liberal as a result of its sizeable population of college-educated suburbanites. The state has the most lenient abortion rules in the south. To avoid charges of extremism, Mr Youngkin united Republicans in his state around a 15-week limit with further exemptions for cases of rape, incest and protection of the life of the mother. They put up reasonable-seeming candidates who worked as an obstetrician and maternal-health start-up founder.
Yet Democrats charged that the moderation was a ploy and that Republicans could not be trusted to contain themselves if handed majorities in the state legislature. Outright bans on abortion were possible, the Democrats warned. And it seems that the voters listened. Now Mr Youngkin must deal with Democratic majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, severely limiting the policy platform he had been planning.
By contrast, Republican attempts to seize on nationalised issues fell flat. Culture-war issues like how secondary-school sports ought to deal with transgender pupils did not electrify voters this year. The unpopular president did not prove a liability. Democrats across the country managed to distance themselves from Mr Biden and his dismal approval ratings.
The White House is already trying to use the Democrats’ wins to buoy Mr Biden and to try and quell anxieties about 2024. But to consider these elections a reliable signal of what is to come could be a mistake. First, because Democrats are now the party of the politically engaged and highly educated, they may benefit more from the low turnout experienced in off-year years. Second, state elections can be more idiosyncratic without presidential ballots. Although Democrats in Ohio and Kentucky have plenty to celebrate, the two states are certainly not in play for Mr Biden in 2024. Mr Beshear has a sort of ancestral claim on the governorship in Kentucky, as a result of his father’s successful stewardship. Every other Democratic nominee for statewide office was trounced. Ohio Democrats cleverly chose to put abortion access on the ballot as a referendum with full knowledge that voters would be unlikely to elect human Democratic politicians.
The off-year election results do not refute the polls showing Mr Biden’s daunting prospects in the year ahead, as much as the White House might wish it so. Instead they suggest that Democrats do not have a platform problem, but a personnel problem. It would probably behove them to take the right lesson. ■
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