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Next Week’s Elections Will Test Voter Mood Ahead of 2024
What to watch for in Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi.
DEMOCRATS ARE RIDING ANGER over abortion rights to the polls next week in off-year elections around the country and, in some places, nervous Republicans are purging voter rolls in anticipation.
In multiple special elections this year, Democrats have crushed it—galvanizing the same post-Dobbs energy that helped them in the 2022 midterms to overperform the relative partisanship of districts by an average of 11 points. But off-year contests attract fewer voters—and different voters—than the presidential election will next year. And a big night next week in Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky does not portend victory for Democrats a year from now, as President Biden remains deeply unpopular.
For example, if Issue 1 prevails in Ohio, enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution, it will not mean that the abortion issue can help re-elect vulnerable Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown next year in that solidly red state. Should Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear be re-elected in Kentucky next week, where an abortion rights vote passed last year by a wide margin, it will likely be a result of his popularity, and not a clue to trends that would benefit Democrats nationally. A fantasy foursome for Democrats would be wins in Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi—in the last of which, Elvis Presley’s second cousin, Brandon Presley, is enjoying a late surge in his effort to knock off Republican incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves.
However, Republicans would have much to gain from victory next week. Defeating Issue 1 in Ohio would provide a reset, and signify a re-engaged pro-life voting base. And Republican wins in Virginia would create a stampede of donors begging Gov. Glenn Youngkin to make a late entrance to the GOP presidential primary—as many of them already have—and he is said to be considering it. Youngkin has bet on abortion, raising significant funds to brand his proposed fifteen-week abortion limit that makes exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. “Here’s the truth: there is no ban,” the ads claim.
Because abortion is on the ballot in both Virginia and Ohio, both parties are investing heavily in those states. Republicans in Ohio were defeated just recently on the issue in August when a ballot initiative that would have blocked this process of amending the state constitution failed by 14 points.
A flip of the state Senate that turns Virginia red would suggest “that Glenn Youngkin has threaded the needle on the abortion question and managed to come up with some Republican messaging that might very well be successful going forward into next year,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres told me.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake agreed. “If they win, you’ll see fifteen-week bans everywhere,” she said.
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So the hope for Democrats is that Republicans continue to fail to coalesce around a position on abortion that gets majority support, and that anger over the elimination of Roe v. Wade persists more than a year later. Since the Dobbs decision, pro-choice voters have been far more energized than pro-life voters, so Lake will be watching for any shift in turnout. She said she is also interested to see how independent and suburban women vote—whether they prioritize the abortion issue or others like parental rights, which dominated Youngkin’s campaign in 2021. Culture war issues, Lake noted, haven’t proven popular in Virginia. “It will be interesting to see how these transgender and CRT and book banning issues work,” she said. “Do they just energize the base or do they reach suburban swing voters?”
THE REPUBLICAN ADMINISTRATIONS in both Virginia and Ohio have purged voter rolls in the run-up to the competitive off year contests. And Youngkin has dared to challenge the Donald Trump orthodoxy that voters should wait until Election Day to vote—spending months promoting his “Secure Your Vote” campaign that included a bus tour.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics said:
It would be an impressive achievement for Republicans to sweep in Virginia, akin to what happened two years ago when Republicans flipped the VA House and won the statewide executives. I will say that it doesn’t really feel like 2021 in terms of late Republican energy, but the battle for both chambers is competitive. A Democratic sweep would reaffirm Virginia as a Democratic-leaning state, although I think, regardless, that the state will be Democratic leaning in next year’s federal elections.
And Kondik warns against seeing the results as predictive because electorates vary with each election. “We have seen that the Democratic position on abortion rights is generally much more popular than the party as a whole,” he added.
While the Republican party and its leader make daily headlines for chaos and criminal proceedings, failure next week will be blamed on their abortion position, or lack of one, that has allowed Democrats to fill a vacuum.
“Being able to handle the abortion issue reasonably, without seeming like an extremist, is absolutely critical for Republican fortunes next year,” Ayres said.