Tuesday night’s election results revealed potential policy and coalitional challenges facing the Republican Party heading into the 2024 presidential election cycle. Referenda in Ohio showed how American cultural politics are shifting, and elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Kentucky highlighted tensions within the electorate.
In Ohio, voters approved (by 56 percent and 43 percent, respectively) two ballot questions—one to expand abortion access, and the other to legalize recreational marijuana. Currently, Ohio’s “heartbeat bill” dramatically limits abortion after the sixth week, without exceptions for rape and incest. Tuesday night’s referendum enacts a constitutional amendment prohibiting state restrictions on abortion before “viability” (as far as six months into pregnancy, by some estimates) and likely will vitiate most of the state’s existing abortion restrictions.
Exit polls reveal major generational and social gaps on both abortion and recreational marijuana. Seventy-seven percent of voters under 30 approved the abortion measure, while 55 percent of voters over 65 opposed it. Married voters broke in favor of expanding abortion in the state, but just barely (51 to 49 percent); a supermajority of unmarried voters supported it. College graduates were slightly more likely than those without college degrees to endorse the abortion ballot question.
Demographic disparities were even sharper on the recreational-marijuana question. Only 16 percent of voters under 30 opposed legalizing recreational marijuana, compared with 60 percent of senior citizens. The only educational group that opposed legalizing recreational marijuana was those who had never gone to college. This, too, may be a function of age, as older Americans are less likely to have attended college.
Abortion was also a big theme in the Virginia legislative races. Republican governor Glenn Youngkin invested major political capital trying to expand the Republican majority in the House of Delegates and flip the State Senate to GOP control. Instead, Democrats won the House of Delegates and are projected to keep control of the State Senate. One of the planks of Youngkin’s platform was imposing restrictions on abortion after 15 weeks; Democrats heavily emphasized abortion and tried to portray Republicans as “MAGA extremists.” Based on the election results, that message got some traction.
It would be a mistake to read too much into these results, however. As Semafor’s Dave Weigel noted on social media, Republican candidates are on course to win every legislative seat in areas of Virginia that went for Biden by less than 8 points. The tipping-point Senate District 31 favored Biden by 13 points; Republican Juan Segura lost it only 5 points as of this writing. While the Old Dominion shifted into the Democratic column during the Obama and Trump years, Youngkin has successfully made the Republican Party competitive there. Still, Virginia voters have not yet warmed to the idea of unified Republican governance.
Results are still coming in from New Jersey, but Democrats seem to have expanded their state-legislative majorities. Fueled by a backlash over Covid restrictions and school closures, Republicans had a better-than-expected night in November 2021, and Democratic State Senate president Steve Sweeney was even upset by a Republican challenger, Ed Durr. Yet Durr’s defeat on Tuesday night demonstrates how Democrats have now clawed back some of these Republican gains. Cultural issues (especially abortion and gender politics) played a major role in Democratic messaging, which also emphasized trying to make New Jersey more affordable.
While Republicans prevailed in down-ballot races in Kentucky, Daniel Cameron lost to the incumbent Democratic governor Andy Beshear. Endorsed by Donald Trump, Cameron tried to nationalize the Kentucky governor’s race by tying Beshear to Biden. But Beshear’s personal popularity blunted those attacks, and his campaign hammered Cameron on health care and abortion. Beshear allies argued that Cameron would cut Medicaid and remove insurance protections for preexisting conditions. A viral Beshear ad featuring a sexual-assault survivor targeted Cameron on the question of whether he would support rape and incest exceptions to abortion restrictions. Current Kentucky law does not contain those exceptions. Cameron at first said that he supported the law but then backtracked, saying that he would sign off on those exceptions if the legislature passed them.
As with Virginia, it’s easy to exaggerate the implications of the Kentucky results. Beshear is the popular son of a popular former governor, Steve Beshear. Republicans hold supermajorities in the state legislature, and Beshear’s election might be read more as a check on total Republican control than an endorsement of a Democratic governing agenda. Beshear’s victory also suggests that, even as politics has grown more nationalized, local dynamics and candidate choices still matter.
Last night’s results highlight a few trends. The end of Roe v. Wade has catalyzed the Democratic coalition, especially younger and college-educated voters. In the 2022 midterms, three states (California, Michigan, and Vermont) passed referenda enshrining protections for abortion in their constitutions. Ballot measures that were seen as potentially restricting abortion, however, failed in Kentucky and Kansas that year. More abortion referenda may be on the way next year.
A post-Roe environment has policy and electoral consequences for Republicans, in particular. Republicans may win elections on pro-life platforms, but their efforts to restrict abortion could come to naught if referenda end up nullifying abortion limits in state constitutions. Ohio is a telling example. The state voted for Mike DeWine and J. D. Vance in 2022, both of whom ran on pro-life messages, yet on Tuesday, voted to block most abortion restrictions. The success of abortion-expansion at the ballot box may be a sign that Republicans and pro-life advocates need to rethink their strategy—both to find some sustainable public-policy position and to win over the electorate. Describing the referendum result as a “gut punch,” Vance argued that Republicans needed a more targeted approach in order to convince voters conflicted over the issue.
Democratic successes in the New Jersey legislative races and Beshear’s gubernatorial victory highlight the importance of pocketbook issues. For multiple cycles, Democrats have undercut Republicans by alleging that the GOP would make health care more uncertain (by not covering preexisting conditions, for instance, or cutting health-care subsidies). Republican inability to refute these charges is one reason why the repeal of the Affordable Care Act failed. Without new thinking on health care, Republicans will remain on the defensive on the issue.
The leftward drift of young and college-educated voters is another political challenge for Republicans and conservatives. If Republicans can’t succeed in the project of generational persuasion, they will face major political headwinds. Suburbanites are a key component of any governing coalition, so the GOP can’t afford to write off this demographic. The migration of politically engaged college-educated voters to the Democratic coalition may give Democrats an edge in some low-turnout elections, and Democrats have certainly overperformed expectations in many special elections this year. If it can’t improve its turnout strategies in off-cycle elections, the GOP may be at a structural disadvantage in the future.
On the other hand, the electorate’s increasing dissatisfactions with progressive identity politics could give the center-right a major political opening. For instance, Kristy Marmorato is poised to be the first Republican from the Bronx elected to the New York City Council in many years, and she emphasized the issue of crime. Making the most of that opportunity will require considerable political imagination and a much more compelling vision of cultural politics than “triggering the libs.”
Tuesday’s results suggest that the electorate has reservations about both parties. In Kentucky and Virginia, voters pulled the lever for divided government. In the Ohio exit polls, only a quarter of voters wanted President Biden to run for reelection, and only a third of voters wanted Donald Trump to run for president again. American voters may well be looking for new options.
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