Politics in the Biden era has a weird, split-screen aspect. Poll after poll comes out, showing that the president is unpopular, that Americans are unhappy with the economy and the southern border and the state of the world, and that the GOP has a national advantage. And then, in election after election, Republicans lose.
They don’t lose every race. In 2021, Republicans took the Virginia governor’s mansion, and they claimed the U.S. House of Representatives the following year. The GOP still holds most governors’ mansions and state legislatures. So far in 2023 they have picked up the Louisiana governor’s mansion; held on to power in Mississippi; and made further inroads on Long Island, New York. Republicans can see a faint silver lining—if they squint hard enough.
Still, since Joe Biden took office, the GOP’s overall record has been disappointing. It’s a story of frustrated ambition, cognitive dissonance, and general incompetence. Biden is the most vulnerable presidential incumbent since 1980, yet he and his party remain competitive. They can point to electoral success. The Republicans, by contrast, have not converted widespread dissatisfaction into sizeable and durable majorities.
This year’s elections in Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia tell us why. All three contests touched on abortion rights in the aftermath of last year’s landmark Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. In Ohio, voters approved a ballot initiative to establish a right to abortion in the state constitution. In Kentucky, voters reelected pro-choice Democratic governor Andy Beshear. In Virginia, voters rebuked pro-life GOP governor Glenn Youngkin by handing control of the state legislature to Democrats.
Now it is true that off-year elections do not predict presidential outcomes. It is true that, if viewed in isolation, each of these results can be downplayed or otherwise explained away. After all, the Ohio measure was vaguely worded. Beshear is a popular moderate, and state-level Democrats have done well in Kentucky. And a Democratic gerrymander hobbled Youngkin’s chances.
Such excuses are true enough. But they are hardly reassuring. The fact is that these elections can’t be viewed in isolation. They hang together. They fit a pattern. They are the latest entries in a litany of loss. And the catalogue has a theme: For more than a year now, if the issue is abortion, the Democrats win.
The Court issued the Dobbs ruling in June 2022. That August, Democrats won special elections in New York and Alaska. And pro-choice activists defeated a measure that would have allowed the Kansas legislature to restrict or ban abortion.
In November 2022, election analysts, including me, expected a red wave to wipe out the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Judging by Biden’s unpopularity and historical precedent, we said that the 2022 result would look like GOP landslides in 1994, 2010, and 2014. We were wrong.
The red wave petered out. There were mini waves in Florida and in New York, to be sure, but nothing spread across the country. Republicans did carry the House of Representatives, but by a disappointing margin. And Republicans lost a Senate seat, dropping to a 49-to-51 minority.
Yes, pro-life Republican governors such as Ron DeSantis, Kim Reynolds, Brian Kemp, and Mike DeWine won reelection by stunning margins. They were experienced incumbents in red states who also offered voters popular economic, social, and education policies. Novice challengers drawn to Trump’s MAGA worldview were nowhere as effective. According to the Fox News voter analysis, Democrats trounced Republicans among the supermajority of voters who said that the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade was an important factor in their vote.
The evidence piled up. This past April, liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz defeated conservative Daniel Kelly for a Wisconsin supreme court seat. Protasiewicz won 56 percent to 45 percent in a race fought over the future of abortion law in the Badger State.
Nor was it only Republicans who suffered losses because of the (often false) impression that they supported abortion bans. Around the same time as the Wisconsin judicial election, far-left progressive Brandon Johnson defeated moderate Paul Vallas in the Chicago mayoral Democratic primary. Johnson ran a campaign devoted to calling Vallas a crypto-Republican who would restrict abortion.
In a September 2023 memo, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which handles state legislative races, announced that Democratic candidates had been over-performing in special state legislative elections by 7 points. “Voters are rejecting Republican extremism and it’s up to us to take advantage of our momentum to shift the balance of state power in 2024,” the memo read.
Governor Youngkin’s proposed 15-week limit on abortion—well in the mainstream of public opinion—was meant to prevent Democrats from defining Virginia Republicans as extreme. It did not work. At the least, it did not work nearly well enough.
Indeed, it is hard to know how Republicans can ditch the baggage they are carrying. Republican victories in 2010, 2014, and 2016 were thanks to independent voters. But independents have swung to the Democrats since 2018 and, apart from Youngkin’s race in 2021, have not looked back. Even if Republicans could figure out how to talk about abortion, they would have to deal with the underlying source of discontent: Donald Trump.
Ironically, Trump understands that abortion presents a political dilemma for Republicans. He has picked several high-profile fights with pro-life leaders to distance himself from the cause. He is triangulating between the right-to-life movement and a public wary of limits on abortion, at no cost to his standing in the Republican presidential primary, or in head-to-head matchups against President Biden.
Yet Trump can’t triangulate from himself. Say he convinces voters that he won’t ban abortion in a second term. He will have to deal with persistently high negative ratings. He will have to deal with suburban independents tired of the chaos and craziness associated with MAGA.
In recent polls that show him ahead of Biden, Trump has benefited from a surge in support from non-college-educated minority voters. Yet, because of how those voters are distributed across the country, Trump’s gains do not necessarily translate into swing-state victories.
Furthermore, my colleague Philip Wallach found that in competitive House races in 2022, Trump-endorsed candidates underperformed baseline expectations by 5 points. What reason is there to believe the same effect won’t apply in 2024?
The polls are clear that Joe Biden has lost supporters since the last presidential election. What’s fuzzy is Trump’s ability to regain followers who abandoned him after 2016. “This will be a very close general election,” wrote Biden campaign manager Julie Rodriguez in a November 2 memo. “With a year until November 5, 2024, the fundamentals of this race show our campaign is in a strong position to win.”
To say that Biden’s position is “strong” is going way too far. The public doesn’t trust him, doesn’t like the job he’s doing, and thinks he’s too old and too infirm to serve another term. Yet the public has been thinking about Biden along these lines since the summer of 2021. And Republicans have little but a narrow and fractious House majority to show for it.
A successful opposition would do all it could to fix two glaring weaknesses: its vulnerability to the charge that it will ban abortion, and its deeply flawed presidential front-runner. That is not what’s happening. The off-year elections were a wake-up call. The GOP is sleeping through it.
Photo: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
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