The political potency of abortion rights proved more powerful than the drag on President Biden’s approval ratings in Tuesday’s off-year election, when Ohioans enshrined abortion rights in their state constitution and Democrats took control of both houses of the Virginia General Assembly while maintaining the governorship of Kentucky.
The evening’s results showed the durability of Democrats’ political momentum since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the constitutional right to abortion in 2022. It may also, at least temporarily, curb the latest round of Democratic unrest over a series of polls showing Biden’s political weakness.
After a strong midterm performance last year, a landslide victory in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race in April and a series of special election victories, Democrats head into Biden’s re-election race with the tailwind. The question for the party is how they can translate that momentum to Biden, who remains unpopular while others on his agenda have prevailed.
Here are key takeaways from Tuesday:
There’s nothing like abortion to help Democrats.
Democratic officials have been saying for months that the fight for abortion rights has become the issue that best motivates Democrats to vote, and it is also the issue that persuades most Republicans to vote Democratic.
On Tuesday, they found new evidence to bolster their case in victories for Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky, who criticized his opponent’s defense of the state’s near-total ban; legislative candidates in Virginia who opposed Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed 15-week abortion ban; and, above all, the Ohio referendum that establishes the right of access to abortion. Daniel McCaffery, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court candidate who championed abortion rights, also won, giving Democrats a 5-2 majority.
Abortion is now such a powerful Democratic issue that Everytown, the gun control organization founded and funded by Michael Bloomberg, used its television ads in Virginia to promote abortion rights before addressing gun violence.
The anti-abortion Democrat running for governor of Mississippi, Brandon Presley, performed below expectations.
It’s a sign that, however weak Biden’s position may be, the political environment and issue terrain remains strong for Democrats running on abortion access and against Republicans defending bans.
Kentucky’s last six gubernatorial elections have been won by the same party that won the presidential election the following year. The president may not be able to do what Beshear accomplished (talk about Biden’s policies without even mentioning the president’s name), but he now has examples of what a winning roadmap to 2024 could look like.
In Virginia, a rising Republican star faces an eclipse.
Governor Youngkin hoped a strong night for his party would greatly elevate his stature as the Republican who turned an increasingly blue state back to red. That would at least put him in the conversation for the Republican presidential nomination in 2028, if not 2024.
But Youngkin’s promise to enact what he called a moderate abortion law (a ban on abortions after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of a mother in danger) gave Democrats an effective response while He sought total control of the state. government.
The Democratic argument won, at least in part. The party won the majority in the House of Delegates, maintained control of the state Senate and definitely ruined Mr. Youngkin’s night. The results offered nervous national Democrats even more evidence of the power of abortion as a motivator for their voters, while upending the term-limited Youngkin’s plans for his final two years in office, and possibly beyond.
A Democrat can win in deep red Kentucky, if his name is Andy Beshear.
Being the most popular governor in the country turns out to be a good thing if you want to get re-elected.
Beshear spent his first term and re-election campaign hyper-focused on local issues like teacher salaries, new highway projects, guiding the state through the pandemic and natural disasters, and, since last year’s Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, oppose his total ban on abortion in the state.
That made him politically bulletproof when his Republican rival, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who had the backing of former President Donald J. Trump, attempted to nationalize the campaign and boost GOP turnout by linking Beshear to Biden and attacking him for Crimes and LGBTQ Issues. (Beshear vetoed new restrictions targeting transgender youth, though Republican lawmakers voted to override it.)
It’s not that Republican voters stayed home; every other Republican running for state office won with at least 57 percent of the vote. Mr. Beshear just got enough to endorse him for governor. A Democrat who can win over Republican voters without making concessions on issues important to liberal voters is someone the rest of the party will want to emulate in red states and districts across the country.
Attacks on transgender rights didn’t work.
As abortion access has become the main issue motivating Democrats, and with same-sex marriage widely accepted in the United States, Republicans, looking for an issue to motivate social conservatives, ended up restricting the rights of transgender people. On Tuesday that didn’t work.
In Kentucky, Cameron and his Republican allies spent more than $5 million on television ads attacking LGBTQ rights and Beshear for his advocacy for them, according to AdImpact, a firm that tracks political advertising. Governor Tate Reeves in Mississippi spent $1.2 million on anti-LGBTQ ads, while Republicans running for legislative seats in Virginia spent $527,000 on television time on the issue.
In fact, in Virginia, Danica Roem, a member of the House of Delegates, will become the first transgender state senator from the South after defeating a former Fairfax County police detective who supported a ban on transgender athletes competing in high school sports.
In Ohio, voters support both abortion and marijuana.
Ohioans once again demonstrated the popularity of abortion rights, even in reliably Republican states, when they easily approved a constitutional amendment establishing the right to abortion.
The vote in Ohio could be a harbinger of the upcoming presidential election season, when supporters and opponents of abortion rights are trying to put the issue before voters in the critical states of Florida, Nevada, Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Abortion rights groups on Tuesday began a winning streak with such ballot measures since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. And ultimately, Ohio voters did what voters before them had done: They chose to preserve abortion rights in their state.
And by a margin almost identical to the abortion vote, Ohioans also legalized the recreational use of marijuana. That will make Ohio the 24th state to do so.
When abortion was not an issue, a Republican won easily.
Mississippi’s gubernatorial race was the exception to the abortion rule in this off-year election: Incumbent Governor Reeves and his Democratic rival, Presley, ran as staunch opponents of abortion rights.
And in that race, the Democrat lost.
Presley hoped to close the Mississippi race by linking the incumbent to a public corruption scandal that saw $94 million in federal funds intended for Mississippi’s poor wasted on projects such as a college volleyball facility championed by the retired superstar quarterback. Brett Favre. He also pushed for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act to save Mississippi’s collapsing rural hospitals.
But in Mississippi, Reeves had three advantages that proved impenetrable: his position, the “R” next to his name on the ballot, and the endorsement of Mr. Trumpwho won the state in 2020 by almost 17 percentage points.
In Kentucky’s gubernatorial race, Democrats also ran pro-choice and, like Presley, lost.
Rhode Island sends Biden aide to the House.
Rhode Island is not a swing state, but still, the heavily Democratic enclave’s election of Gabe Amo to one of its two House seats likely made Biden smile. Amo was deputy director of the White House office of intergovernmental affairs and, as such, becomes the first Biden White House aide to advance to Congress.
The son of African immigrants, Amo will also be the first black representative of the Ocean State.
White House officials said the president congratulated his former aide on his victory. The special election fills the seat vacated by David Cicilline, a Democrat who left the seat to run a nonprofit organization.