For Republicans, Election Day 2023 didn’t come close to living up to expectations.
And Tuesday’s results in gubernatorial and legislative showdowns as well as in some high profile referendums gave Democrats a big shot of adrenalin while potentially serving as a warning sign for the GOP looking ahead to the 2024 elections for president and control of Congress.
President Biden, facing a slew of negative polls in recent days that have fueled questions over his ability to win re-election next year, touted the Democrats’ success at the ballot box.
“Across the country tonight, democracy won and MAGA lost. Voters vote. Polls don’t. Now let’s go win next year,” the president urged in a fundraising social media post and text.
Here are some takeaways from the 2023 election results.
Abortion remains a potent issue for Democrats
Voters in the red state of Ohio convincingly approved a ballot measure to protect abortion rights in the state constitution.
The results are the latest in a slew of statewide victories for abortion rights since the blockbuster move last year by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority to overturn the landmark nearly half-century-old Roe v. Wade ruling, which had allowed for legalized abortions nationwide.
The decision moved the divisive issue back to the states. And it’s forced Republicans to play plenty of defense in elections across the country. A party that’s nearly entirely “pro-life” has had to deal with an electorate where a majority of Americans support at least some form of abortion access.
Virginia’s legislative elections were also a major testing ground for Republicans on abortion, where victories by the Democrats will enable them to prevent the GOP from passing abortion restrictions.
National and state Democrats made abortion a crucial centerpiece in their push to get out the vote in Virginia.
And Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia – who was leading the GOP charge to win total control of the state government in Richmond – leaned into the issue and pushed a proposed 15-week abortion ban, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
“I just wanted us to be very clear about what we were going to do,” he told Fox News last week. And he argued that “the other side is really good about spreading non-truths. And, of course, what they want to do is make abortion available all the way up through and including birth, paid for with taxpayer money.”
Democrats ran on keeping in place the state’s current restrictions, which allow abortions through the second trimester. And they note that Virginia is the only southern state that doesn’t ban abortions.
The Democrats prevailed, holding onto their majority in the state Senate and winning back control of the state House of Delegates.
In heavily red-state Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear won re-election in part by criticizing opposition to abortion by his Republican challenger, state Attorney General Daniel Cameron.
And in a closely watched state Supreme Court race in battleground Pennsylvania, a Democrat won an open seat after campaigning on a pledge to uphold abortion rights.
Longtime GOP strategist David Kochel noted that abortions remains “a terrible problem” for Republicans. “They’re out of step with where the country is” on the issue.
Kochel, a veteran of numerous presidential and statewide campaigns, acknowledged that Republicans are “not going to win on abortion” and urged GOP candidates to “fight where they can win – on the economy, foreign policy, competence.”
Veteran strategist Democratic National Committee member Maria Cardona pointed to last year’s midterms, where the Democrats over performed, and told Fox News that the 2023 results “were similar to what happened in 2022 when everybody was predicting a red wave.”
Looking ahead to next year’s contests, Cardona predicted that abortion “is going to continue to be an incredibly mobilizing issue.”
Glen Youngkin falls short
Youngkin wasn’t on the ballot, but he had a lot riding on the results of Tuesday’s legislative elections in Virginia.
As a first-time candidate who hailed from the party’s business wing, Youngkin edged out former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2021 to become the first GOP candidate in a dozen years to win a gubernatorial election in the one-time swing state that had trended towards the Democrats the previous decade.
After investing plenty of political capital on behalf of Republican legislative candidates as he criss-crossed the state holding rallies, Youngkin became the face of his party’s push to win total control of the state government in Richmond.
But he failed in his mission, and the results mean Youngkin won’t have a free hand during his final two years in office to push through a conservative agenda. They’re also seen as political setback for a governor with a reputation as a rising star in the GOP and someone who many in the Republican donor class were urging to make a last minute entry into the party’s 2024 presidential nomination race.
What 2023 tells us about 2024
Democrats are touting their victories on Tuesday night – including unexpected legislative gains in New Jersey – as a positive sign for Biden as he seeks a second four-year term in the White House.
“I absolutely think it was a big night for Joe Biden because the president is the head of the Democratic Party,” Cardona argued. “He is the one who’s pushing the Democratic agenda…which is making this contrast that is enabling Democrats to win up and down the ballot all across the country.”
But Beshear kept Biden and national Democrats at arm’s length in Republican dominated Kentucky, as did Democratic gubernatorial nominee Brandon Presley, who over performed in his single digit loss to Republican incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves in deep red Mississippi.
Kochel, pointing to Biden’s polling woes, argued that “the best news for Republicans” in the wake of the dismal 2023 election results “is that Joe Biden remains the standard-bearer in 2024 and that’s a bad, bad thing for Democrats.”