Republicans in the wilderness

Published November 9, 2023

By Thomas Mills

(Editor's note: The content below was posted in the substack Politics NC on Wednesday, November 8)

Democrats scored big last night. They won everywhere. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear handily won re-election in a state that voted for Trump by 26 points in 2020. Democrats flipped the Virginia House of Delegates and held the state senate. They won a Supreme Court seat in Pennsylvania. They won districts in the New Jersey legislature that Republicans had held for decades. And they voted overwhelmingly for an abortion rights amendment in Ohio.

In North Carolina, they won in suburban areas where Republicans have had a foothold. WSOC reporter Joe Bruno tweeted, “A blue wave has struck Huntersville. Former State Rep. Christy Clark won Huntersville Mayor. Mecklenburg County Democrats won all 6 At-Large seats.” We’ll know more as results come in today from areas that got less coverage last night.

A few things are obvious. Abortion is still a salient issue for Democrats. The vote in Ohio wasn’t close. The amendment passed by 13 percent. In Virginia, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin made passing a 15-week abortion ban the closing argument of the campaign, believing that voters are ready for what the GOP thinks are reasonable restrictions. Youngkin was hoping to flip the state senate for Republicans. Instead, he helped lose the house.

Republicans also tried to run against Biden, believing his low poll numbers would be a drag on Democrats. They were wrong. Presidential approval for two consecutive elections has had little to do with electoral outcomes. Maybe the polls are wrong. Maybe people are thinking differently about elections and candidates. Regardless, the correlation between presidential approval ratings and voters’ decisions seems to be broken, at least where Joe Biden is concerned.

Often, the outcome of odd-year elections have offered a preview of what’s to come in the next national election cycle. The GOP wave of 1994 was preceded by a big GOP year in Virginia in 1993. However, in 2021, the election of Youngkin in Virginia and Republican gains in New Jersey began the narrative of an impending red wave in 2022 that never actually materialized.

The election is sure to cast doubt about polls that show Biden and his agenda deeply unpopular. Voters almost alway vote against the party in power when they are feeling uneasy about their personal situations. Clearly, that conventional wisdom either no longer holds or the polling is just not accurately reflecting how people feel.

Over the coming days and weeks, we will get deep dives into the numbers, telling us who voted how. Democrats have traditionally relied on a heavy turnout among younger voters, but younger voters also tend to vote less in these off-year elections. We may be seeing the result of the re-alignment that has been taking place in this Trump era. Moderate voters may be abandoning the GOP, unwilling to support a party captured by its right flank and beholden to a four-time indicted ex-president.

Regardless, just the surface analysis looks good for Democrats in North Carolina. A solid majority of voters in every state reject the Dobbs decision and they will almost certainly reject the bombastic rhetoric of Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson who has said he wants to outlaw abortion for any reason. If Robinson wins the primary, his position will set the stage for a race between a competent administrator and an avowed culture warrior. I’ll put my money on the administrator.

The GOP legislature imposed a 12-week ban including votes by several legislators who pledged not to support restrictions. It will be a hot topic for legislators like Rep. Tricia Cotham and Sen. Mike Lee. Cotham spent her career advocating for reproductive rights and then threw those values out the door for the drooling attention of the GOP. Lee wrote a letter pledging to “find common ground” on abortion before voting for the uncompromising legislation. Voters never like being lied to and they lied.

Democrats won up and down the ballot and across the country. Last night should be a cautionary tale for Republicans, but the party is still beholden to a man who lives in a fantasy world of stolen elections and imaginary fortunes. Democrats have messages that work and an organization that’s functioning. Ignore the narratives of Democrats in disarray. Republicans are the ones in the wilderness.