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A Banner Off-Year Election Night For Democrats
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A Banner Off-Year Election Night For Democrats

Youngkin faces disaster in Virginia as abortion boosts Democrats almost everywhere.

Happy Wednesday! We hope you had a pleasant off-year Election Day—or, for those who celebrate, a pleasant commemoration of the anniversary of Rudy Giuliani’s legendary press conference at Philadelphia’s Four Seasons Total Landscaping.

Up to Speed

  • Democrats enjoyed a strong night across various off-year elections Tuesday night, with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky winning reelection by 5 points, Democrats retaking the state House and retaining the state Senate in Virginia’s legislative elections, and Ohio voters passing by a commanding margin a constitutional amendment creating a right to abortion in the state. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, also won reelection.
  • Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, was censured by the House of Representatives Tuesday in a bipartisan vote after she posted a clip that features protesters chanting “from the river to the sea” in a video critical of President Joe Biden’s support for Israel in the wake of a terrorist attack on the Jewish state that targeted civilians for murder, torture, and kidnapping, leaving more than 1,400 dead. “From the river to the sea” is an antisemitic term used by Hamas and others who oppose Israel’s existence. Tlaib claimed she was not using the phrase in that context. The censure resolution, offered by Rep. Rich McCormick, a Georgia Republican, passed 234 to 188, with 22 Democrats supporting and four Republicans opposing.
  • Democrat Gabe Amo won a special election to fill Rhode Island’s vacant 1st Congressional District, overwhelmingly defeating Republican Gerry Leonard, the Providence Journal reported. The Democratic-leaning seat went empty in June after Democrat David Cicilline resigned midterm. 
  • Democrat Dan McCaffery won an open seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. McCaffery’s win over Republican Carolyn Carluccio solidifies the Democratic Party’s hold on the Commonwealth’s highest court ahead of the 2024 presidential election. In 2020, the court figured prominently as Donald Trump and Republicans supporting the 45th president filed legal challenges complaining Joe Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania was illegitimate.
  • Democrat Yusef Salaam won an uncontested race for a seat on the New York City Council, the New York Times reported. Salaam’s victory, coming after he finished first in a competitive Democratic primary, was expected. But Salaam’s candidacy has received outsized attention because he is one of the “Central Park Five,” a group of minority youths convicted and later exonerated in the 1989 sexual assault of a female jogger in Central Park. Donald Trump, at the time a prominent Manhattan real estate developer, called for them to receive the death penalty. 
  • Six Republican contenders qualified for the GOP’s third presidential debate, airing at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBC from the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts overlooking Biscayne Bay in Miami. But with frontrunner Donald Trump taking a third pass, you’ll only find five of the candidates on stage: former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; Nikki Haley, the ex-South Carolina governor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; wealthy biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy; and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. 
  • Doug Burgum was excluded from the televised faceoff because he did not meet the threshold established by the Republican National Committee for support in national polls. But don’t expect the North Dakota governor to drop out anytime soon. Burgum, who is calling the RNC’s decision unfair, announced Tuesday his campaign planned to air fresh television advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire during the debate broadcast.

Virginia Democrats Spoil Youngkin’s Party

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin greets voters while campaigning in Bristow on November 7, 2023. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin greets voters while campaigning in Bristow on November 7, 2023. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Tuesday was a disaster for Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

The Virginia Republican put more than $14 million and a giant chunk of his political capital on the line to maintain GOP control of the state House of Delegates and to win the majority in the state Senate. Ultimately he was unable to do either, consigning Virginia to two more years of divided government and likely quieting all but the most desperate calls for Youngkin to make an eleventh-hour entry into the Republican presidential primary.

A combination of environmental factors, from redistricting to a slew of incumbent retirements to the solidly Democratic bent of the Old Dominion, helped Democrats keep and grow their power in the General Assembly. 

But Democratic candidates also ran on a straightforward message: Their party stood in the way of a takeover by Virginia Republicans who were too extreme on abortion and as the party of MAGA and Donald Trump, no matter how hard Youngkin tried to present a more moderate face on both of those fronts. It’s likely that even the Virginia GOP’s association with the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives that seems always on the brink of shutting the federal government down hurt the party with swing voters, many of whom live in the Northern Virginia region and work for or with the government.

In the Senate, Virginia Democrats dashed Republican hopes when they sewed up some of the marquee competitive races early on Tuesday evening. While Youngkin and the Republicans worked to boost candidates in seven swing districts stretching across the state’s three major metropolitan areas, the GOP candidates collapsed in nearly all of them. In Northern Virginia, Democrats ran the table on two of the three targeted exurban districts, with the third still too close to call. But losing both one key race in the Richmond suburbs and another in Virginia Beach sealed the fate of the GOP. The final split will likely be a 21-19 Democratic majority, a net gain of 1 seat for the Republicans.

And in the House of Delegates, which Republicans narrowly won control of in the 2021 elections, Democrats stunned the GOP in the same 3 regions of the Commonwealth by winning six of the 10 key races, with two additional races too close to call. The shift in raw numbers, however, is relatively small: Republicans went from holding 52 House seats at the beginning of the last term to somewhere between 47 and 49 seats following these elections. 

Some Republicans might take small comfort that their losses in the House weren’t worse—the margins in the two decisive races were just under 2,500 votes, one Republican pointed out to The Dispatch. Republicans are also blaming secretly recorded comments made by a Prince William County-based GOP House candidate for hurting the party’s image. In the recordings, John Stirrup said that he would back a “100 percent ban” on abortion; Stirrup lost by four points, while Republican Bill Woolf of the overlaying Senate district lost by fewer than 2,000 votes to Democrat Danica Roem. 

But despite an otherwise unified message on abortion around the proposal of a more moderate 15-week abortion ban, the Republican brand looks severely damaged among swing voters on the issue. The coordinated messaging and “reasonable” abortion proposal just wasn’t enough on the margins in the races that mattered. 

Susan Swecker, the chair of the Virginia Democratic Party, savored the big wins in a statement Tuesday night.

“Even with tens of millions spent and after every attempt to suppress the vote, there was no way for Republicans to sell Virginians on giving them control to take away our rights, our freedoms, and put the middle class at risk,” she said. “Virginians won’t go backwards. Instead of extremism and culture wars, people voted for common sense leadership and problem solvers.”

For their part, Team Youngkin did little to explain away such disappointing results.

“We had hoped for a stronger outcome this evening but are proud of the effort all of our candidates put in to these extremely competitive districts,” tweeted Dave Rexrode, a top adviser to Youngkin.

Abortion Politics Still a Strong Winner for Democrats

Abortion politics likely hurt Republicans in Virginia, but that wasn’t the only place pro-choice voters flexed their electoral muscle. In ruby-red Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear survived a tough reelection campaign largely by painting his Republican opponent as too extreme on the issue. And in Republican Ohio, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment restoring the Roe v. Wade abortion-access standard in the state.

Beshear was never going to be easy to beat: He’s had strong approval ratings throughout his first term and has built a reputation as a nonpartisan problem-solver who successfully shepherded Kentucky through the COVID pandemic and other disasters.

Still, Republicans thought they’d found a solid challenger in Daniel Cameron, who won his attorney general race by 19 points the same year Beshear was first elected. Cameron was seen by many as a rising star in a divided GOP, a Mitch McConnell ally who was enthusiastically endorsed by Donald Trump, and would have been the first black governor in Kentucky history.

But Beshear hammered Cameron on a specific issue: his support for Kentucky’s highly restrictive abortion ban, which permits the practice only in the event of life-threatening medical emergency. Cameron had previously said he supported the law; as attorney general, he defended it in court.

In widely circulated ads, the Beshear campaign drilled Cameron over that law’s lack of exceptions in cases of rape and incest. One ad featured a local prosecutor: “Daniel Cameron thinks a 9-year-old rape survivor should be forced to give birth. Nobody—no child—should ever have to go through that.” Another direct-to-camera ad featured a woman named Hadley who had been raped by her stepfather at 12. “Anyone who believes there should be no exceptions for rape or incest could never understand what it’s like to stand in my shoes,” she said. “This is to you, Daniel Cameron. To tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable.”

Sensing danger, Cameron tried to scramble away from his earlier position. “If our legislature was to bring legislation before me that provided exceptions for rape and incest, I would sign that legislation,” he told a Louisville radio station in September. It wasn’t enough. After he won, Beshear thanked Hadley by name in his victory speech.

Before last year, it would have been nearly unthinkable for a moderate Democratic governor in a red state to hit his Republican opponent on abortion. But that was before it became clear how uncomfortable even majorities of red-state voters currently are about the prospect of putting new abortion restrictions into place.

That unease was most visible in Ohio, where 58 percent of voters backed an amendment reestablishing a right to abortion within the state. It was the biggest red-state victory yet for pro-choice activists in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision in 2022. While voters in Republican-heavy places like Kansas and Kentucky last year rejected ballot questions that would have effectively tightened abortion restrictions, no advocates in such states had yet tried to end-run GOP legislatures completely on the issue. The victory is sure to add fuel to efforts to replicate the same plan next year in states like Florida and South Dakota.

Can GOP Confidence in Elections Be Repaired?

A majority of Republican voters—62 percent—still believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election. The distrust is palpable, and is only getting worse heading into 2024.

Only 35 percent of conservatives think all 2020 votes were counted accurately and that only eligible voters cast votes. And most voters across the political spectrum are bracing for more suspicion and uncertainty over the outcome of an expected rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden. Only 28 percent of Americans—including around 40 percent of GOP voters—say they expect Republicans to accept the presidential results next year should their nominee lose. 

These data points, from new Gallup polling on the state of American trust in elections, paint a stark picture of how widespread deceit about Trump’s 2020 loss has metastasized into deep electoral cynicism on much of the right. But that grim situation is also spurring some Republican efforts to find ways to reach those voters and bring them back into the fold. 

The polling was commissioned by the pro-democracy SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University and the center-right R Street Institute, which have in recent months begun spearheading a new agenda to map out a “conservative agenda for democracy”—a conservative policy plan to rebuild American trust in elections going into 2024 and beyond. 

The groups will map out the contours of that agenda Wednesday afternoon at the Hopkins Bloomberg Center in Washington, D.C., with a series of videos and panel discussions featuring experts and Republican elections officials. They’ll include Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Utah Lieutenant Gov. Deidre Henderson, Gabe Sterling, the chief operating officer for the Georgia secretary of state.

“The leaders that we elect—our ability to have confidence in them is this understanding that they were rightfully elected,” Idaho Secretary of State Phil McGrane told The Dispatch. “There are numerous people, including Republican secretaries of state, who are trying to work together to bolster confidence.”

It’s a tall order, as the Gallup polling goes on to show. The voters who are most likely to believe recent elections have been rigged tend to have high levels of distrust in American institutions overall—which means they’re less likely to pay attention to or trust their local governments, news outlets, or even Supreme Court decisions, and more likely to get their election information from seemingly like-minded people on social media.

For Republicans concerned about reversing these trends, part of the solution involves persuasion and educational efforts at the local level. As we’ve written in the past, some election officials have recently taken on a new role as process evangelists, educating voters in their communities about the safeguards in place to ensure the accuracy and security of the vote. 

But it also involves developing a policy vision for ways to make the election apparatus itself easier to trust. That includes both policies to tighten election security—voter ID, for instance—and to streamline the vote-tabulation process, like pre-processing absentee ballots.

“Public confidence is tied to how quickly the results are available,” McGrane says. “Idle minds are a dangerous thing. It’s like everyone’s trying to explain the gap—like what’s happening. And so, can we come up with policies and procedures that help better align with American expectations in terms of knowing the outcomes of elections?”

The event will be livestreamed here.

Notable and Quotable 

“I’ve expressed concern about that and will continue to.” 

—House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, responding to questions about Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s use of the phrase “from the river to the sea,” November 7, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.