Let's talk about Tuesday's results for the GOP

Are you tired of all the winning yet? Eh, maybe that joke isn’t all that fair, as Donald Trump wasn’t on the ballot yesterday, and conservatives hit one disappointment after another for rather non-Trump issues — the popularity of the Beshear name in Kentucky, the pro-Democratic reflex of Virginia’s electorate, and the fact that even deep-red Ohio isn’t comfortable with the notion of sweeping restrictions on abortion.

Don’t Panic over Last Night’s Results

This is where I’m supposed to decry the outcome of last night’s elections and say that all is lost for Republicans.

No doubt they’re disappointing and ominous for the GOP, but the results last night are not reason for panic. The elections in the year before the presidential election are a little odd — much lower turnout, governors’ races in a trio of Southern states with their own quirky histories and dynamics, and intense waves of advertising in state legislative races that usually fly under the radar.

Democrats are cheering last night’s results, saying they demonstrate that Joe Biden wasn’t a drag on his party this year. And obviously, he wasn’t, but . . . how much were voters thinking about Biden when selecting a governor in Kentucky or state legislators in Virginia or New Jersey? Similarly, as much as I believe Donald Trump repels at least as many voters as he attracts in much of the country, how much were voters thinking about him when he wasn’t on the ballot?

If you look back eight years to 2015, you see Republicans won two governors’ races (Kentucky, Mississippi) and lost one (Louisiana). This year, Republicans won two governors’ races (Louisiana, Mississippi) and lost one (Kentucky). (Jeff Landry won the Louisiana governor’s race in the first round in October, and everyone seems to have forgotten about that.)

Back in 2015, the Virginia state legislature barely changed, with the state Senate remaining the same, and Democrats picking up one state House seat. Democrats entered last night with 22 Virginia state Senate seats, and as of this writing, they’ve won 21 seats with votes for two others still being counted. Entering last night, the Virginia House of Delegates was split, with 48 Republicans, 46 Democrats, and six vacancies. As of this writing, it has 51 Democrats and 47 Republicans, with the results from the aforementioned two seats still up in the air.

In other words, Election Night 2015 was a not-so-great night for Republicans, and I think you remember what happened the following year. This doesn’t mean that bad off-year elections are precursors of good years for either party. It just means that low-turnout off-year elections in a handful of states can only tell us so much about the overall national political environment.

The Disappointment in Kentucky

Yes, one poll had Republican Daniel Cameron up by a point, but Republicans probably talked themselves into believing they had better chances of winning the Kentucky governor’s race than they actually did.

Andy Beshear is a popular governor  — never mind his overall approval rating of 60 percent; just note that 41 percent of Kentuckians who voted for Trump approve of the job Beshear’s doing — who entered this race with the advantages of incumbency. His father, Steve Beshear, was a member of the state House, state attorney general, lieutenant governor, governor for two terms, and a U.S. Senate candidate. The name “Beshear” has appeared on a ballot in Kentucky 15 times in the past 44 years. Voters in this state are used to voting for guys named Beshear.

Down-ticket, Republican Russell Coleman won the state-attorney-general race handily, and Republicans won the secretary-of-state, state-treasurer, agriculture-commissioner, and auditor-of-public-accounts races by 14 percentage points or more. Kentucky is a state that likes having Republicans run everything but the governor’s mansion, where the electorate really likes members of the Beshear family.

The Disappointment in Virginia

There are a bunch of people who were already disinclined to like Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin who are now going to argue that the disappointing results for Republicans last night are a sign that Youngkin is a “damp Dorito.” And no doubt, Youngkin pulled out all the stops campaigning for his party’s state-legislative candidates. No, Youngkin’s name wasn’t on the ballot, but it is reasonable to conclude that even the densest Virginia voter understood that Republican state legislators were more likely to help enact Youngkin’s agenda than Democratic state legislators.

But as noted above, Virginia is shifting from narrow GOP control of the state House and narrow Democratic control of the state Senate, to narrow Democratic control of both chambers. Control of the state legislature is probably going to come down to a couple thousand votes in a handful of districts. It’s a frustrating result for the GOP, but not a sweeping rebuke.

There are some people saying that last night’s results are “a sharp setback for Youngkin as he seeks to raise his national profile as a potential last-minute presidential contender.” But what were the odds that Youngkin was going to jump in, after missing the presidential-primary filing deadline for a bunch of states, and overtake Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Trump? As I wrote in September, “Youngkin 2024” is a terrific idea that will never work.

There’s a frustratingly compelling argument that Virginia is a blue state, not a purple one. Donald Trump lost the Commonwealth of Virginia by 212,000 votes in 2016 and 451,000 votes in 2020. The results of 2021 — Youngkin winning the governor’s race, Winsome Sears winning the lieutenant-governor race, and Jason Miyares winning the state-attorney-general race — were the only GOP statewide wins since 2009. In that span, Republicans endured close losses (Ed Gillespie) and blowouts (Corey Stewart).

Let us also point out the strong possibility that Terry McAuliffe was a uniquely bad gubernatorial candidate for the Democrats back in 2021 — a rich old white guy representing a party increasingly obsessed with wealth disparities and race. Yes, McAuliffe was a former governor, but he was and is well known as a prolific fundraiser for the Clintons, and he infamously blurted out, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Maybe Virginia is the kind of state where Republicans need the combination of a particularly strong candidate on their side and a particularly weak candidate on the Democrats’ side to overcome the electorate’s traditional impulses.

The Disappointment in Ohio (Noticing a Pattern Here?)

Tuesday, Ohioans voted 57 to 43 percent in favor of adding a sweeping right to abortion to their state constitution. This result was not unexpected given the results of Ohio’s August referendum on raising the threshold for enacting constitutional amendments (a fight that became a proxy battle over abortion), but the loss nevertheless stings for advocates of the right to life. The pro-life side is now zero-for-seven in abortion referenda since the Dobbs decision in June 2022, and Ohio marks the first time a red state has added a pro-abortion amendment to its constitution.

Pro-lifers can complain that the wording of the referendum was misleading, but their mission in our political world is to inform people about the real consequences of abortion. And the pro-life movement is going to have to accept that in a lot of states, laws that bar some abortions but not others may be the best possible outcome. 

In the long term, the pro-life movement needs to change many more hearts and minds of Americans to win a long-lasting victory across the country. Such change will likely involve seeking incremental gains and prudent legislative compromises. It is telling that a large percentage of abortion stories in the mainstream media focus on the very small percentage of hard cases involving rape, incest, or fatal fetal-health conditions. It is also essential that pro-life officials everywhere counter the lies of the abortion-industrial complex that hospitals may need to delay treatment of conditions that threaten the life of the mother due to pro-life laws. No law requires waiting until such a threat becomes imminent to act.

One last thought: Considering the state of the GOP primary, it is safe to say that this is still Trump’s party. If the Trumpified Republican Party chases away sweet churchgoing little old ladies, minivan-driving white-collar suburbanites, and soccer moms, etc. in exchange for blue-collar voters who are more likely to only vote in presidential-election years . . . then it is going to suffer through a lot of really lousy off-year, midterm, and special elections.

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