Home » The Downballot: Abortion powers Democrats to huge election night (transcript)

The Downballot: Abortion powers Democrats to huge election night (transcript)

Just one word explains why Democrats had such a massive election night on Tuesday: abortion. On the newest episode of The Downballot, co-hosts David Nir and David Beard recap all the top races through the lens of reproductive rights, which continue to motivate Democrats and even win over a key swath of Republican voters. Nowhere was that more evident than in Ohio, which voted to enshrine the right to an abortion into the state constitution by a double-digit margin, despite countless GOP attempts to derail the effort.

Abortion also played a key role in Kentucky, where Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear won another term by making his Republican opponent answer for his total opposition to the procedure despite the state’s deep-red hue. It was central as well in Virginia, where Democrats won complete control of the legislature after GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin dared them to oppose his proposed 15-week ban. And it came up again and again in swingy Pennsylvania, which saw Democrat Dan McCaffery win a key seat on the state Supreme Court over a far-right opponent. Plus: How the suburbs continue to slip away from the GOP’s grasp.

Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

David Beard: Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.

David Nir: And I’m David Nir, Political Director of Daily Kos. “The Downballot” is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency, from Senate to City Council. Please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review.

Beard: Wow. Well, we’ve got quite a show today, don’t we?

Nir: We have so much to talk about. Let’s get right to it. Beard, oh my God. Tuesday night. Holy crap. That was incredible. How many times are we going to kick off this show by saying that, but that was just beyond “beyond?”

Beard: I know, I know. Knock on wood, it’s going to keep happening. I don’t want to lose this feeling, but it was another great night. We’ve had a number of them in a row. Hopefully, they will keep going, where Democrats won a number of key races and had some real successes across the country.

Nir: It was truly incredible to watch. And I have to say, as a Democrat, as a progressive, as someone who’s been in this business a long time, it felt absolutely amazing and the extent, the breadth, of Democratic successes up and down the ballot across the country, that was pretty remarkable. But I have to say, it wasn’t a surprise. And the reason why it wasn’t a surprise, to me at least, is because we’ve been paying attention, very close attention, to the overall political environment, including the special elections. And I was only kidding around just a little bit at the start of this show. We have had so much good news this year, so if you’ve been paying attention, Tuesday night really should not have been a total shocker.

Beard: Yeah, there’s been a big incongruity between the actual election results that we’ve seen throughout the year, and particularly, obviously special elections results that we’ve been tracking, that have consistently shown a good atmosphere for Democrats across the country, versus this national polling that we’ve seen. Obviously, most recently, this very bad poll came out talking about next year, which gives Democrats this doom and gloom feeling that everything is going terribly. And obviously, elections don’t happen every day. And particularly unless you’re really paying attention, you won’t notice all of the elections that happen throughout the year. Maybe you only notice the ones in your area, and then in November you sort of hear in your newspaper or wherever about the results. And so if you don’t regularly intake actual election results, you think things are going terribly for Democrats because of these news headlines and these polls that come out. But there’s no evidence of it from actual election results that we have been getting throughout the year.

Nir: Yeah. Unlike polls taken a year before an election, which historically have very little predictive value, special elections, as our own analysis has shown, particularly by our colleague Daniel Donner, have a lot of predictive power, particularly when it comes to explaining what’s likely to happen in upcoming elections for the US House in the next November election. And these special elections also have predictive power even when you only have one year’s worth of data. We’re now halfway into the ’23-’24 cycle, and these numbers are telling us a lot. And we know this because if you look at half cycles worth of data in past election years, they also have a lot of predictive value.

I think, at least I’d like to think, that the kinds of analysis that we at Daily Kos Elections have been doing since 2017 about special elections, I think it’s really changed the narrative and changed the way that a lot of people look at elections. We’ve seen folks, particularly folks like Aaron Blake and Philip Bump at the Washington Post, whose work I respect a great deal, really take this stuff seriously and really use it to interpret the overall political environment.

But it’s gotten to a point where I think people are taking this stuff seriously, that Jonathan Chait at New York magazine actually published a piece on Wednesday morning, the day after the election, with the headline “The Special Elections Tell Us Nothing About 2024.” That’s not true. That’s not true. But the fact that he even felt the need to publish this totally reactionary piece, trying to poo-poo the special elections, very ineffectively I might add — but the fact that he felt compelled to do so, to me, says, “Wow, okay. This analytical tool has really had an impact and has taken hold among the broader political community,” which I think is awesome.

Beard: Yeah, and I think it also totally misses the point, insofar as the special elections tracker and the analysis that we’ve done, and that other folks have done, shows that it tracks the House result for next year, not necessarily the presidential race. Now, given increasing polarization, I would be really surprised if there was a big difference in outcome between the House result next year and the presidential race next year. But, again, this problem that we see and why you started the Swing State Project all those years ago, why we do “The Downballot” now, is that everyone’s obsessed with the presidential race and Biden. So of course, Chait compares the special election results to Biden, which is not what anyone is claiming, and instead fails to compare them to what we are claiming around the House vote.

But the point remains that special elections do have good evidence behind them in a way that polling the year before really does not. That doesn’t mean you obviously completely ignore polling. There can be some valuable information that you can glean from them a year ahead. Particularly people who are looking to conduct the campaign might want to know how to conduct the campaign next year. But you’re not going to take it and be like, “Oh, well, here’s the result from October 2023. That must be how November 2024 is going to go.”

Nir: Yeah. Yair Rosenberg at The Atlantic, who is one of my favorite people on Twitter, he tweeted, “Breaking. Polls show that if the 2024 election were held tomorrow, something completely unconstitutional will have happened.”

Beard: Exactly.

Nir: I mean, yeah, polls definitely have value a year out, but like you say, not for predictive purposes, but to tell you about the issues that people care about and how you might conduct your campaign accordingly. And I don’t want to get too deep into the presidential race. After all, this is “The Downballot” podcast, but it’s also been a super weird presidential race. It’s been entirely focused on Biden with this weird fake GOP primary. And Trump really hasn’t been centered in the race yet. And that’s going to change things in one way or another.

Whereas with the elections that actually took place on Tuesday night, and all the special elections that have taken place this year, not just the special races, like the Wisconsin Supreme Court election; those involve actual candidates and actual races that have been actually fought on the campaign trail. And voters know what they’re getting and they’ve been exposed to these messages. And so they just take the temperature of the electorate so much better than a poll a year out from an election can.

Beard: And these are key presidential states where we’ve been seeing these good results in 2023. Obviously, as you mentioned, Wisconsin this past spring, and Pennsylvania just on Tuesday, have shown really good results in states where the presidential race will be decided next year.

One other point I want to make that’s a little bit about the presidential, but it’s more about campaigns in general, which is we’ve often seen these polls in red states where you see these really competitive races where both candidates are like 42. The Republican’s at 42, and the Democrat’s at 42, and you’re like, “Oh, maybe this could be a race. Maybe the Democrat could pull it off in a red state.” And when you dig into those polls, often what you see are voters that you think of as regular hardcore Republican voters are unhappy with their candidate and so aren’t indicating support for that candidate in those polls. And then inevitably, as you get closer to Election Day and then on Election Day itself, those voters come home, reluctantly or not; maybe they’ve been persuaded during the course of the campaign. They end up voting for the Republican candidate, as you would expect.

And what we’ve been seeing with a lot of these polls is a lot of unhappy traditionally Democratic voters, be they young voters or voters of color, who aren’t very happy with Biden or with Democrats in general, but they’ve been voting Democrat in 2023 when actually faced with elections. And my expectation is that most of those voters are going to come home during the course of the election next year, as we often see in so many elections up and down the ballot. People tend to come home if they’re traditionally Democratic or traditionally a Republican voter.

Nir: That’s an excellent point. And I will say that last year, I feel like my biggest analytical mistake was assuming that those unhappy, undecided Republican-leaning voters were going to come home for Republicans because that is usually what happens. And so you would see those polls, 47-47 tie in a red or swing state, and you figure, “Oh man, the Republican is going to win 52-48 in the end.” And in a lot of cases that didn’t happen, which was what made 2022 so interesting a race. And man, if that happens again, while at the same time, modestly disaffected Democrats actually do wind up coming home, we could have another really rough election for Republicans on our hands just like we did on Tuesday night. So I think it’s high time we get down to diving into some of these races.

Beard: Yes, absolutely.

Nir: So undoubtedly, the theme of the night has to be abortion. We’ve been talking about it all year. We’ve been talking about it since last year since Dobbs, and it’s been a huge factor in special elections all over the place, like the Wisconsin Supreme Court race. And there’s simply no question that that was what happened on Tuesday night as well.

Beard: Yeah. Obviously, Ohio is the biggest case, and we’re going to start talking about that, but this was an issue that was key in almost all of the top statewide races across the country and in a lot of the state legislative races as well.

Nir: Yeah, Ohio is the obvious, obvious place to start. Issue 1, of course, was the constitutional amendment put on the ballot by voters to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution, and that won in a freaking landslide. It won 57-43, almost identical to the margin that voters rejected the previous issue on, the August GOP-backed amendment that would’ve made it harder to amend the state constitution. That was also 57-43.

And Republicans tried everything they possibly could to prevent this issue from even appearing on the ballot. They tried to prevent it from passing even if it did get on the ballot. And there was just no stopping this. Ohio is a red state that voted for Trump by eight or nine points, and yet it voted to protect abortion rights and also contraceptive rights, and also the right to fertility care, in the state constitution, by a double-digit margin.

And Republicans, there’s just nothing they can do about this. In 2019, three years before Dobbs, they passed a six-week abortion ban in the state. It was revived after Dobbs was handed down. Then it was put on hold by a state court judge. The case was making its way through the state courts. Really good chance that the far-right state Supreme Court would green light that six-week abortion ban at some point. And now they can’t. It’s just done. It is written in the state constitution that the state cannot interfere with the right to an abortion before viability. In other words, a framework very much like what we had under Roe. And that’s it. That’s the end of the story. We win.

Beard: Yeah. First off, I just want to say to Mike DeWine, the governor of Ohio: you don’t have to worry about trying to pass those pesky exceptions that you promised the Republican legislature was somehow going to take up. If only voters voted down this pro-reproductive rights amendment, you would get those little exceptions passed in the Republican legislature, even though they didn’t want to. Well, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. That’s been taken off your hands. You can go back to other issues.

I’ll also say I did see a comment from one of the GOP state legislative leaders who said, “Well, this is just the start of amendment after amendment about abortion going on the ballot as they seek to repeal or change this amendment.” I’m just like, “Good luck with that.” When you lose on an issue by more than 10 points in a very competitive state like Ohio, the odds that this is suddenly going to turn around for you in just a couple of years seems pretty low to me. But they’re more than welcome to put more reproductive rights amendments onto the ballot so that we can vote them down and turn out our voters.

Nir: Beard, I absolutely love this idea. We should offer some pro bono consulting to the Ohio Republican Party.

Beard: Yes.

Nir: Here’s how you screw yourself. Sorry, we didn’t mean to say that part out loud.

Beard: Yeah. Every year repealing. Issue 1 goes on the ballot, everyone goes to vote on it, it loses. We elect maybe some Democrats; everybody wins.

Nir: This sounds fantastic. I saw some tweet on Tuesday night where some Ohio Republican was claiming, they’re actually glad that Issue 1 is done with. Because now they don’t have to contend with it on the ballot for 2024 when they have all kinds of other races on the ballot, including, of course, the all-important Senate race with Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown seeking reelection. The excuse-making, the copium: it’s all just, just amazing.

And here’s the other thing though. There are going to be other issues on the ballot that are going to motivate Democrats. But not just Democrats, also civic-minded Republican voters; particularly, redistricting reform is almost certainly going to be on the ballot in Ohio. And also a minimum wage increase.

And abortion is going to be really top of mind. I mean, assuming the presidential race, Biden versus Trump, that’s a really, really clear divide between the parties. Trump still keeps bragging about how his finest achievement was adding justices to the Supreme Court who destroyed Roe v. Wade. So yeah, you’re not getting away from this, dudes.

Beard: Yeah, Sherrod Brown is absolutely going to be campaigning on abortion and telling voters in Ohio that, “If you send a Republican in my place and you vote for Donald Trump, there’s a very good chance you could get a nationwide limitation on abortion next year.” And that’s going to be a real threat that Republicans are going to have to deal with because voters are going to be like, “Oh, I don’t want that. So maybe I should vote for Democrats this year, even if I don’t agree with them on everything. Because I really don’t want to see a nationwide abortion ban passed. And so we’ve got to make sure Democrats control enough of Washington to make sure that that doesn’t happen.” So this issue is not going to disappear even from a state like Ohio that now has constitutional protections.

Nir: Now, I don’t think Sherrod Brown is going to win 57-43.

Beard: If only.

Nir: If only. I got to believe that the folks who create the voter files, in other words, the databases that campaigns use to try to figure out who their supporters are, now I have a really interesting new layer of data to add to their files, which is how people voted on Issue 1. And so you are going to have a number of Republican voters throughout the state who the voter file creators at least have good reason to believe, probably voted in favor of Issue 1. Obviously, the secret ballot is sacrosanct. So these are just best guesses.

And so to my mind, that suggests to me that there’s a whole new set of data about a universe of voters that Sherrod Brown can reach out to that maybe we didn’t know as much about before, these pro-choice Republican voters. And it’s not like Republicans benefited in any way. It’s not like their voter files are identifying new swaths of voters who might find the GOP message appealing. So I like this for Sherrod Brown.

Beard: Yeah. And to tackle it first on a micro level, and then I also want to talk about it on a macro level. There are always things that crack people open to being more willing to vote for the other side. Most voters in America go into the ballot box, they vote for the Republican, they vote for the Democrat, even if they don’t like parts of what their own party is doing. People can be very unhappy with their own party and still just go in and check all the Democratic boxes, or check all the Republican boxes.

But eventually, for some people, something will cause them to vote for something opposite their party, be that a referendum, be that a controversial candidate. Something to make them think, “I’m not going to vote the way I’m supposed to vote as a quote, unquote ‘Republican voter.’ I’m going to vote in this case for Issue 1. I’m going to vote to protect abortion rights and maybe also I’m going to vote for marijuana legalization.” Even though maybe they care a lot about tax cuts or something, whatever generally makes them a Republican.

And what that does, obviously you’re not going to get 100% of those voters. But some of them are going to be more open to being like, “Well, I’ve already voted against what the Republicans wanted once. Maybe I do think Sherrod Brown is the most important person to protect abortion rights, and so I need to vote for him next year.” And maybe you get 20% of those voters who used to always vote Republican who started voting for these pro-reproductive rights amendments, who voted for marijuana legalization, were like, “You know what? I need to vote for Sherrod Brown. This is too important. I’ll vote for my Republicans downballot.” And then over time, those people start voting for Democrats more and more.

And we’ve seen that happen. In the South, obviously over the latter half of the 20th century, we saw folks starting to vote for Republicans at the presidential level, these white Southerners. And then down the ballot it trickled, more and more votes for Republicans.

Over many years we’ve seen that in suburban areas and various states where something cracks them open. And then just election after election, it becomes a little bit more Democratic as more suburban voters start being willing to vote for Democrats. And that’s something you could see here. I think some of these voters who have been voting for these pro-reproductive rights issues are going to be like, “Maybe I need to vote for Sherrod Brown next year.”

Nir: Well, we definitely saw that phenomenon play out in the Kentucky governor’s race, which was another amazing result. Democratic Governor Andy Beshear defeated his Republican opponent, Daniel Cameron, by five points, four years after Beshear pulled off a remarkable upset by just a few thousand votes against Republican Matt Bevin.

And when Beshear started running ads on abortion in Kentucky, that just blew my mind. And that said to me, “Whoa, this issue is hitting differently than any other issue. Because no Democrat running for statewide office in Kentucky, probably in most parts of Kentucky, would ever want to even say the word abortion, get anywhere near the issue.” But Cameron’s views are so extreme, supported the state’s near-total ban on abortion that Beshear realized that he had an opening there. And he ran ads, a really heartrending ad featuring a young woman who said she had been raped and talking about the state’s lack of an exception for victims like her should they become pregnant as a result of a rape. Beshear even thanked that woman in his victory speech on Tuesday night.

And he made Cameron squirm. I mean, Cameron really was uncomfortable. And he even started to say, “Oh, if the legislature would pass certain exceptions he would sign them.” As if Kentucky Republicans are ever going to do that. The Kentucky legislature could keep up with the Ohio legislature to pass all these loosenings of their abortion ban.

Beard: Yeah, any day now. Any day now.

Nir: I mean, they still can just because they lost right? Now’s the time to prove, right?

Beard: Yeah. I mean, if the Kentucky legislature wants to send Andy Beshear some legislation to enshrine these protections into Kentucky law, I’m sure he would sign them. So go for it.

Nir: Please do. And I think part of the reason why Beshear knew that this could be a winning issue for him is that you’ll recall, I’m sure many of our listeners remember that last year abortion was also on the ballot in Kentucky. The legislature had put an amendment on the ballot saying that state judges could not rule that the state constitution guaranteed any right to an abortion. Now, no state court had ever ruled in that way. Some other states have, but not in Kentucky. But Republicans were freaked out about the possibility that maybe one day the Kentucky Supreme Court would say, “Oh, the state constitution protects a certain right to an abortion.” And so they put this amendment on the ballot and it lost.

It lost by actually a pretty similar margin to what Beshear won by. I think it lost by about four points. Beshear won by five points. And so even in deep red Kentucky, you have these pro-choice Republican voters who obviously were absolutely critical to Beshear’s victory. And man, I mean, if you’re a Republican in Kentucky and you can’t run on abortion free and clear, where can you?

Beard: Yeah. And to take it back to a pre-Dobbs atmosphere, a lot of Southern Democrats, not only were they anti-abortion, but they didn’t even want to talk about being anti-abortion. Because even raising the issue of reproductive rights was a loser for them. Because it would raise the salience, make people think about it, and make people vote for Republicans, even if you were trying to say that you were on their side on the issue.

Nir: Because they were associating Democrats with being pro-choice, even if you were claiming you were not.

Beard: Yes. Just by raising the salience of the issue even if you were trying to agree with these voters, was a net negative for you. So all you would do is focus on economic issues. You had your defensive answer if it was like a debate or if somebody asked, but you never brought it up, you never had an ad about it, anything like that. And now obviously to see how much things have shifted with this advertising campaign that Beshear ran, is just crazy.

And I think so much of it is because Republicans allowed themselves to get so extreme on the issue of abortion. Because they were protected by Roe for so many decades that they could introduce fetal personhood amendments, or whatever else they called it, that would basically ban abortion completely. And there was never really any pushback to them because everyone was like, “Oh, well, Roe is the law of the land.” Then introducing these crazy bills, they didn’t matter. It doesn’t mean anything.

And now people are living in that reality in a lot of states. And so when Republicans have this and when you can put on these ads to say, “Hey, I’m somebody who would fit this exception, and now I couldn’t get an abortion if I needed one.” That really affects people in a way that it just never did before Dobbs. And it sucks as we’ve talked about, that it had to happen for people to take it seriously, and that people didn’t take it seriously in 2016. But that’s the reality of where we are.

And obviously, Andy Beshear used it to great effect to win such an impressive victory after such a narrow margin, as you mentioned, to win this comfortably against a good candidate. Obviously, Cameron had his problems, but he was well-liked both by the McConnell wing and the Trump wing.

Beard: He was well-liked both by the McConnell wing and the Trump wing. So it’s just such an impressive win by Andy Beshear and great for Kentucky that he’ll be the governor for the next four years.

Nir: So Republicans have been scrambling to try to find some other way to talk about abortion, to deal with abortion because they can’t give up on abortion. Obviously, it’s never going to happen. But we saw that even if you try to come up with some new look approach to all of this in Virginia, it still just didn’t work. Democrats had a huge election night in Virginia. They held the state Senate. They’re going to have a 21-19 majority there. That’s actually down one seat, but it’s a very solid 21 seats. They also flipped the state House. They won exactly the three seats that they needed. They are currently leading 51-48. There’s one seat that’s uncalled where the Republican is ahead. So right now, that would wind up at 51-49, and that last seat could potentially change.

There, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin had been pushing his party to embrace his call for a 15-week ban on abortion. The other thing that he did as part of this was he tried to spin it not as a ban, but as a, quote, unquote, “limit.” He even got some big media outlets to buy into this and put the word limit in their headlines. Like, dude, we’re not stupid. If you can get an abortion in 15 weeks, but you can’t at 16 weeks, then you’re banned from getting an abortion.

Youngkin was convinced that this was going to work. He had some polling that claimed that people were very evenly divided on this. The anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List said that this was a perfect test case, and this is what Republicans ran on and embraced in Virginia, and it was absolutely deadly to them. Democrats were like, “Yeah, bring it on. Bring it on,” and it was Democrats who brung it.

Beard: Yeah, this was a great test case for this claim and it was an utter failure. So if they want to test it again, of course, by all means. But what I would take from it from their side is this doesn’t work any better than any of the rest of the things that they’ve tested in other states. I saw a great comparison on X — Twitter, whatever we want to call it — which is that it’s a similar issue now for Republicans as gun control is for Democrats in that you can take a poll and you can message it to where you get 90 plus support for certain gun restrictions, background checks, other things. Then when you go and you actually run a campaign, you can talk about those things that have 90 plus support. But then people who really care about this issue will be like, “Well, yeah, I support that, but I don’t trust you to just do that. I think you’re going to take my guns,” is the problem that Democrats keep facing with that issue.

It’s like, “Even though I support those very specific issues that you say you’re running on, I don’t trust you as a party to do just that because I think you’re going to take my guns.” Now for the flip side, what you have is no matter what Republicans say, “Oh, we just want to limit abortion a little bit,” they try to say, and voters are going to say, “Well, maybe I wouldn’t mind that, but I don’t trust you to stop there. I don’t trust you as a Republican Party to just pass this 15-week ban and stop there. So I’m going to still vote for the Democrats because I want to make sure abortion rights are protected. I know they will do that. I believe that Democrats really care about this and will protect this, and I believe that you care about banning it. Even if you say you’re going to do this more limited law, I know you still want to ban abortion, so I’m not going to vote for you.”

Nir: I think that is such a great point. I also think it goes even further than that because a lot of issue-based polling isn’t really well suited to capturing the intensity of preference that people feel. With the gun safety issues, like you were mentioning, most Americans are very much in favor of most smart gun-safety laws, but those who are opposed are really, really intense about it. They get super fired up, and they’re the ones who are turning into super volunteers and donors and showing up in low-turnout elections. We saw this a decade ago in particular. Beard, do you remember those Colorado recalls-

Beard: Yes.

Nir: … of a couple of Democratic legislators in reasonably blue districts in Colorado, and they were recalled by gun advocates and Democrats supported pretty normal laws. But the pro-gun fanatics were so crazy about it that they showed up for these oddly-timed recall elections and recalled these two sitting state legislators who were Democrats.

I feel like abortion is turning into that issue for us in that it generates incredible passion, particularly among women voters, younger voters, many segments of the Democratic coalition, and also I think a segment of voters who had not previously been part of our coalition, those more moderate Republican voters that we were talking about earlier. So, yeah, of course, the hardcore anti-abortion folks are also really, really worked up. But I think that Republicans are just simply unused to this level of intensity coming from the Democratic side. So you get a poll like a Youngkin poll, 47% in favor of his 15-week ban, 47% against, and you think, “Oh, people are evenly divided.” But I think the 47% opposed or whatever it is, I think they have just no understanding of how angry and motivated they are.

Beard: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. I do want to say one thing about these elections that isn’t about abortion. I know it’s crazy for us to say something-

Nir: What?

Beard: … that’s not about abortion, and it is important. All the stuff we’re saying has been true. But I do think what we’ve seen is, of course, Virginia is, I think at this point, a very light blue state, less so in non-presidential years a little bit just because of turnout and then pretty reliably blue in presidential years. But I think we’ve seen the solidification of that edge this year around these suburban areas outside of D.C., the Richmond suburbs. As you said, there are 21 seats in the Virginia state Senate. It’s only 21, obviously, one more than you need to have a majority, but it’s very solid. These races were all won by, I think, at least 3 or 3-1/2 points. They’re all places where you would expect Democrats to generally be the favorite. So I think it solidifies a little bit like this is where Democrats can have that stronghold in Virginia to hopefully keep the state legislature moving forward for the foreseeable future.

Nir: Speaking of that 21-seat majority, Beard, I have to give one shout-out before we move on to the next topic, to Lashrecse Aird, who we talked about a bunch on this show earlier this year. She is the former state legislator who unseated conservative Democratic state Senator Joe Morrissey in a very blue seat earlier this year in the primary. Morrissey was extremely unreliable, totally corrupt, and expressed an openness to supporting an abortion ban with Republicans. Aird is a super solid progressive, totally pro-choice. The fact that she replaced Morrissey means that we won’t have this total loose canon schmuck that we can’t rely on. I’m not going to say that Democrats will remain perfectly unified on every issue for the next two years. That’s just not possible. But I think 21 in the Senate, 51 in the House, we’re going to see just how unified they are.

It’s going to be such a huge contrast to the U.S. House where Republicans can’t do a thing with a five-seat majority. I think Democrats are going to do a lot. No, sorry, there’s one more thing I have to mention, which is that Joe Sudbay, who is a frequent guest host here on The Downballot and regular host on SiriusXM Progress, I went on the radio with him late on Tuesday night. He pointed out, he said he felt that Youngkin had been protected for the last two years by the fact that the state House was in Republican hands. So the legislature never put forth any progressive bills, popular progressive bills that he then had to veto. That’s about to change. With the legislature being fully in Democratic hands, they are going to put bills on his desk that are going to make him squirm, and I really look forward to that.

Beard: Yeah, and my suspicion is that he’ll probably veto them, making himself a worse future candidate in Virginia, but continuing this crazy dream of someday being the Republican presidential nominee.

Nir: Yep.

Beard: Obviously, that’s not going to be the case in 2024, but clearly both Youngkin and some sort of cadre of Youngkin lovers across the Republican Party’s moneyed class think that Youngkin is going to be like a future Republican presidential nominee, which I think there’s no way he would ever get through-

Nir: No.

Beard: … a primary. If you remember, of course, he only got the nomination because it was a convention in Virginia for the governor nominee in 2021, not a primary. So the idea that he’s going to go off and win an Iowa caucus or some other primary in one of these more conservative states is just laughable. But I do think it’s going to, unfortunately for Virginia, result in a lot of vetoed progressive legislation over the next two years.

Nir: Well, Democrats will have the chance to flip the Virginia governorship in 2025. Youngkin, of course, is term-limited because Virginia is the only state in the nation that limits its governors to just a single four-year term. But it is time we move on to the next big state, and that, of course, is the jumbo swing state of Pennsylvania.

Beard: Yes, Pennsylvania, where once again, abortion was a major factor in the biggest race of the night, Democrat Dan McCaffery won a vacant state Supreme Court seat 53-47. That restores the Democrats’ 5-2 majority that they had lost when one of the members had passed away, resulting in a temporary 4-2 majority. Had we lost this race, obviously it would’ve gone to 4-3, still a Democratic majority, but a lot more vulnerable. We’d also seen one of the Democratic judges side with the Republicans on a couple of mail ballot decisions. So having a 5-2 majority really stabilizes that. Of course, like we’ve seen in other states, abortion was one of the key issues that came up in this race around the Supreme Court ruling on that.

Nir: Yeah, the Republican, Carolyn Carluccio, she was super, super anti-abortion in the primary. She talked on her website about protecting all life, and she just had no answer for questions about abortion. On Tuesday night, a reporter asked her about the role that abortion had played in the race, and she said it played, quote, “way too much of a role.” Well, dude, you could have taken it off the table, but of course, she was incapable. We talked about this on the show recently, but she’s running for state Supreme Court, and that’s a position that I think most voters take pretty seriously. They want someone even-keeled and even-handed, and Carluccio really came off as looking anything but that.

Beard, you were talking about some of the recent election law cases that the state Supreme Court has handled. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court played a really big role in just putting a dead stop to Trump’s scheme to steal the state’s electoral votes. And in the Trump indictments, Pennsylvania’s mentioned all over the place, it was central to his attempt to subvert the election and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court simply said no. Carluccio, the Republican, was definitely very sympathetic to Trump’s point of view about the election having been stolen. She said recently in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer that she had “no idea who had won the 2020 presidential election.” I mean, like get the fuck out of here, and this is who could have been on the court and thankfully that’s not going to happen. And I think any Republican fantasies of succeeding on the legal level, at least in Pennsylvania, where they failed in 2020, are just absolutely dead in the water at this point.

Beard: Yeah, and this race reminded me more of any other on Tuesday of last year’s election races where Republicans so often either nominated a crazy person, or they nominated a candidate that had to swerve so far into the crazy lane to get nominated that it was essentially the same result where everyone was like, “Oh, you seem kind of crazy by the end of it.” Because Carluccio was the more moderate “candidate” because there was a real crazy in the primary that she had to beat, which is why-

Nir: And yet.

Beard: And yet. I know. I know. “Moderate.” You can’t see my air quotes over the podcast I know, but trust me, they’re there. So she swerved into this crazy lane so that she could win the nomination and get to the general election. But of course, it’s easier said than done to then just try to present yourself as this sort of establishment moderate Republican after you’ve said all those things. And also you sort of learned how to do the crazy campaigning.

We see these Republicans make these errors during the general election, I think because they get so used to campaigning around a lot of these very hardcore Republican voters, and so they just say things they think are normal responses about Biden not winning the election, and then everybody else is like, “What?” Are you in reality?” And they’re like, “Oh-“

Nir: Yeah, right.

Beard: “… Oh, right, I’m not with team crazy anymore. I have to present a different front to everybody else.” And by then it’s too late.

Nir: That’s so perfect. The candidate in a way that she reminds me the most of was actually a 2023 candidate Dan Kelly in Wisconsin in the Supreme Court race there. He was even more extreme than Carluccio, but I think you’re absolutely right. They get so deeply embedded in their own Fox News bubble or these days it’s the Newsmax bubble and they just can’t talk to normal people anymore. Yeah, Republicans for the most part did okay with candidate recruitment in this odd-numbered year, but also there are so many fewer races. I mean, there were still a ton of races, but there are so many fewer candidates, and I think we’re going to get right back in 2024 to seeing the nut bars rule the roost because I think they got maybe a little bit lucky in the odd year.

Beard: Yeah, yeah. No, I think there will be plenty of crazies for us to talk about next year once we have races all across the country again.

Nir: Pennsylvania also had a lot of downballot races at the county level for some really important offices. In particular, these county commissions in Pennsylvania are generally responsible for running many aspects of elections, including whether or not to offer drop boxes and how many and where to place them. As a result of a number of these Democratic victories throughout counties in Pennsylvania, voting is simply going to be easier in 2024 and that can make a big difference in close races, whether we’re talking about at the presidential level, the Senate race, of course, Bob Casey running for reelection, or a number of races for the US House and the state legislature as well, where half of the state Senate is up and the full House is going to be up. But there’s one county in particular that we need to highlight, and that’s Dauphin County, which is where the capital of Harrisburg is located.

Democrats took a majority on the county Board of Commissioners for the first time in history on Tuesday night. This had never happened before. And not only that, this county is in a potentially competitive congressional district, the 10th district, which is represented by Republican Scott Perry, who’s one of the top insurrectionists in Congress. He’s almost certainly going to face a difficult reelection next year. This is great news because it just means there’s probably going to be higher turnout than there otherwise would’ve been in Dauphin County, and we can be sure that the folks who are going to be responsible for running the election are going to do so fairly and make it as accessible as possible.

Beard: This is a district for a number of years that’s sort of been right on the edge of competitiveness, inching towards Democrats, but never really becoming the top tier. I think obviously this election result is a great sign for future Democratic performance, but also, like you said, making sure that people have every opportunity to vote next year and what will hopefully be a competitive race to try to take down Scott Perry.

Nir: Now, it wasn’t a perfect election night. I mean, come on. There’s no such thing. It’s too big of a country, there are way too many races and some of them are going to be on inhospitable turf for Democrats no matter what. The highest profile place where Democrats came up short was the Mississippi Governor’s race, where Republican governor Tate Reeves defeated Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley by a 52-47 margin. But we’ve got to remember, this is freaking Mississippi here. This was a five-point race. Republicans seriously sweated it. They put in a lot of money.

Now, Democrats certainly did as well, but man, I mean, if you’re having to fight really hard to protect Mississippi, and if you’re going to election night not being sure whether you’re actually going to win or whether there might be a runoff, I don’t want to find myself in that position. That would suck. I mean, you know what that felt maybe a little bit like the New York Governor’s race in 2022. It was like, I don’t really think Lee Zeldin is going to win, but I hate having to worry about that. That’s where Republicans were, I think with Mississippi on Tuesday night.

Beard: I think Tate Reeves might’ve been constructed in a laboratory to see if they could create the Republican so bad while still getting 51% of the vote in Mississippi because he’s so awful, but the state is just so inelastic. There are just so many people who are going to vote for Republicans no matter what, that he can just be so bad and still get 51% of the vote, which I’m sure is extremely frustrating, obviously, for the many Democrats in Mississippi, but I don’t think is very reflective of broader trends like the rest of the night was.

The reality is it’s just so hard for Democrats to get from that mid-forties position to 50% of the vote in Mississippi. The voting is so racially polarized that the hill is so much higher to climb than a state like — New Hampshire is obviously the classic, very elastic state where there are just a ton of voters who are swing voters who are willing to vote for Democrats or Republicans depending on the candidate or the year and all of that. And the vast majority of voters in Mississippi, they just go tick the Republican box or the Democratic box, and it’s so, so hard to get there. Reeves did everything he could to help get Democrats there, but we still didn’t get there even with every scandal in the world.

Nir: That has to be the most disgusting laboratory in the world.

Beard: Yeah, I wouldn’t want to visit it.

Nir: Oh God. Well, it’s high time that we wrap up, but I think there’s one other theme to the night that we have to discuss before we sign off.

Beard: Yeah, and we’ve touched on this a little bit — but I think it’s really important, particularly as we’ve looked in the past few years of politics in America, and as we look to 2024 — and that’s the continued evolution of suburbia really across the country. We’ve seen that suburban areas are in different places along this path in different parts. In some states, suburban areas are very reliably blue at this point. In some states, suburban areas are still fairly red and just starting to inch their way toward Democrats, but the trend is just so consistent all across the country.

You can see that Beshear improved his margins the most in suburban Louisville and in suburban Cincinnati. In these three counties in northern Kentucky that border Cincinnati, Beshear made some real improvements there. We saw a lot of really good results in Ohio in these suburban counties around Columbus and around Cincinnati that are traditionally pretty red, that still voted to enshrine abortion rights in the Constitution and voted for marijuana legalization. We saw, as I mentioned, in Virginia, these suburban areas of Washington DC, of Richmond, really helped solidify a small but durable Democratic majority. In Pennsylvania, we saw Democrats do really well at the local level in these southeastern Pennsylvania counties around Philadelphia. We saw them do well across the suburbs in that Supreme Court race. And I think this is a trend that’s pretty durable at this point, and we should expect to see continue into 2024 with democratic strength in the suburbs.

Nir: Yeah, there’s one particularly interesting suburban county that’s more in the outer reaches of the suburbs in the eastern part of the state, and that’s Berks County, B-E-R-K-S. Not to be confused with Bucks County. Berks County had really remained Republican for a long time, even though it is fairly suburban. Trump won it by eight points in 2020, but McCaffrey won it by two points on Tuesday night. That’s a 10-point swing, and it at least is a sign that maybe Democratic fortunes are improving ever further out into the Pennsylvania suburbs. If that’s so, that is going to pose a huge problem for Republicans because they pretty much have to win back Pennsylvania in order to win the White House in 2024. I mean, maybe there are other paths, but if not Pennsylvania, then states very much like Pennsylvania and areas very much like the kind that we’re talking about. If these are actually, Beard, like you were saying, durable changes, then they have a serious problem.

Beard: Yeah, and we saw throughout particularly the latter years of the Obama presidency, rural areas just like going away from Democrats, and it just kept happening and everyone kept wanting to do something about it, but these trends are sometimes not so easy to change. That trend continued, even though in a lot of places we’re so far down in rural areas that there’s not too much further to go. Those trends of those voters we lost during the Obama era, they haven’t come back. What we did was we started gaining suburban voters, and so Republicans are probably going to have to deal with the fact that these suburban voters are by and large not coming back, and they’re going to have to look to how they win elections in other ways.

Nir: Once again, they can point to all of the polls that they want, but election results are a different beast entirely, and there is simply no arguing with the fact that Democrats had an exceptional night on Tuesday night.

Beard: Absolutely. That’s all from us this week. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing [email protected]. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our editor Trever Jones, and we’ll be back next week with a new episode.


November 2023