Democrats romp, Youngkin flops: 4 takeaways from Tuesday’s election

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Joe Biden has had a very bad few days. His party just had a banner year.

In Tuesday night’s off-year elections, the incumbent Democratic governor in Kentucky — a state President Joe Biden lost by 26 points — handily won reelection. Democrats not only rebuffed Virginia Glenn Youngkin’s bid for total control of the state legislature by keeping the state Senate — and flipped the state House, too. And the party held a state Supreme Court seat in the nation’s largest Electoral College battleground of Pennsylvania.

None of these wins guarantees success for the party in 2024. Biden is losing to former President Donald Trump in a host of recent polls, and Democrats are underdogs to hold their Senate majority.

But for now, the results on Tuesday — taken together with a string of special elections throughout the year that showed Democratic candidates outperforming Biden’s vote shares in districts across the country — serve as a powerful counterpoint to the party’s doom-and-gloom over the president’s poll numbers.

Democrats’ victories won’t make those polls go away, but they should prompt a rethinking of the current political moment, with a year to go until the next general election.

Here are five takeaways from Tuesday night:

Democrats’ 2023 successes, defined

Going into Tuesday night, Democrats were already having a strong 2023. Compared to Biden’s 2020 victory, Democratic candidates in special elections this year had been running about 8 percentage points better, on average.

There were a couple marquee victories, too, like flipping control of Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court and stopping conservatives from trying to make it more difficult to pass the abortion-rights amendment in Ohio.

Tuesday added to the winning streak: Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear won reelection. Democrats held the Virginia state Senate and flipped the state House. The party was the driving force behind a ballot measure to enshrine the right to an abortion in the Ohio state constitution. And Democrats added to their Wisconsin victory by winning a similar race in Pennsylvania.

They also won by muscle-flexing margins. Beshear beat state Attorney General Daniel Cameron by 5 percentage points; his first victory four years ago was by less than half a point. The Ohio abortion amendment passed by 12 points. Daniel McCaffery, the Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania, won by 8.

Republicans can point to a few victories this year. They easily flipped the open governorship in Louisiana last month, and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves won reelection on Tuesday. But their successes were few and far between a year after also underachieving in the 2022 midterms.

Democrats might want to pump the brakes before assuming their 2023 successes will continue into 2024, though. With Trump his party’s likely nominee again, the GOP will be counting on the former president’s coalition to show up like it did in 2020.

Voters with lower incomes and lower levels of educational attainment tend not to vote in elections like the special and off-year races in which Democrats have been so successful this year. And these voters have been shifting toward Trump and the GOP in recent years.

The potency of abortion

The Ohio result marked the latest in a series of major victories at the ballot box for reproductive rights advocates in the year since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

The victory for the “Yes on 1” side in Ohio was largely expected after an August referendum where the state’s voters rejected a measure that would have made the abortion amendment more difficult to pass.

But how the victory transpired was notable.

A POLITICO analysis of 80 counties that reported complete results shortly before midnight found that the Yes side exceeded Biden’s 2020 margins by an average of more than 10 percentage points in counties the Democratic president lost. The Yes side overperformed Biden’s 2020 results in blue counties too, but the margin of improvement was actually smaller.

The unofficial results also suggest that the counties with the highest turnout in Tuesday’s election were actually jurisdictions that had favored Trump in 2020. The victory for Yes on Issue 1 was not driven by remarkable Democratic turnout — but by a significant share of voters in Republican-leaning counties casting their ballots for abortion rights.

That may not translate perfectly to electoral success for Democratic candidates for office. But it does provide a blueprint for abortion-rights supporters to circumvent Republican legislatures in red and purple states through referenda. The lesson: rely on the slice of voters who won’t vote for a Democrat for office — but who would vote for a ballot measure on abortion.

Democrats also campaigned heavily on abortion in Virginia — and even in Kentucky, where Beshear portrayed the lack of exceptions in the state’s abortion ban as too extreme.

Youngkin falls flat as the GOP’s white knight

Youngkin bet it all on the Virginia legislative races. And it looks like he is coming home empty-handed.

The wins are a rebuke to Youngkin’s efforts to consolidate power in the state by removing a Democratic roadblock to his agenda, on everything from taxes to abortion. Youngkin, unusually, launched a strategy to have Republicans run on abortion in these elections. Youngkin pushed candidates to coalesce around a 15 week ban in the state, trying to cast Democrats as extremists on the issue and Republicans as the party with the reasonable position.

Voters rejected that.

Youngkin’s loss will likely stretch beyond the commonwealth. Some Republican donors have been publicly pining for the Virginia governor to jump into the presidential race as a last-minute challenger to Trump.

That was always logistically infeasible. But, the argument went, Youngkin could build up political momentum — and the support of key donors — with a show of strength in Virginia that would catapult him to the top of the primary field.

Youngkin pointedly never ruled out a presidential run, only saying he was focused on these legislative races when asked. But Tuesday’s results will likely put an end to that talk.

How it plays out for 2024

Biden’s defenders were jubilant over Tuesday’s results, claiming they were a more accurate reflection of the president’s political standing than a battery of polls showing him losing to Trump — including one that CNN released during its election-results show on Tuesday night.

“Voters vote, polls don’t,” read a Biden-Harris fundraising email issued after a good chunk of the results were in.

Those pleas are probably downplaying the political trouble Biden faces at this point. But the president undeniably got a nice boost from the night.

The president and his aides were quick to point to Kentucky, Ohio and Virginia as evidence that there is enthusiasm for Democratic causes and candidates. They left the night even more confident abortion is a winning campaign issue. Perhaps more important, they believe they bought themselves a reprieve from naysayers who fear that they’re facing doom when Biden squares off against Trump.

As for Trump, the former president was notably quiet during the evening. He had expended little of his political capital in the lead up to the vote. But his support for state Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s governor bid in Kentucky did leave him open to attacks from his primary opponents. Chris Christie and aides to the Ron DeSantis allied super PAC Never Back Down took turns arguing that the results once more showed that Trump is a drag on the candidates he backs, not a boost for them.

But it was New York City, not Kentucky, that may have delivered the most symbolic rebuke of Trump Tuesday. Yusef Salaam, a member of the exonerated Central Park Five, won a city council seat. Trump had called for the death penalty for those five, who were wrongly accused of raping a jogger. He has refused to apologize for it.

“Karma is real,” Salaam said of his win.

Sam Stein contributed to this report.

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