Is it all about abortion?

There’s no avoiding the fact that yesterday’s off-midterm elections didn’t go well for Republicans. Democrats held on to the Governor’s mansion in deep-red Kentucky and took control of both legislative houses in purple Virginia. They also won a state Supreme Court seat in Pennsylvania, and voters in Ohio approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a practically unlimited right to abortion at any stage in a pregnancy. Governor Tate Reeves was reelected in Mississippi for the only significant Republican win of the cycle.

Here in Georgia, the results were more muted simply because we didn’t have very much on the ballot. Many municipalities elected mayors and city councils in officially nonpartisan races, but we had no statewide offices or referenda to vote on. In the metro area, Dunwoody voters rejected a $60 million bond referendum, but otherwise the various proposed local tax increases and exemptions passed without significant opposition. These sorts of referenda almost always pass by large margins, so it’s hard to draw any kind of deeper conclusion locally from those results.

What does this all mean for 2024, here in Georgia as well as nationally? The national media’s conclusion is that the only real issue on anyone’s ballot was abortion, and that voters overwhelmingly approve of it, to the exclusion of any other issue. There is some evidence for this view. Ohio’s new law is as extreme a pro-abortion policy as one can think of – certainly far beyond what’s permitted in most states and other industrialized nations – and voters approved it by a margin of 56% to 44%. Democrats in Virginia and Kentucky also ran on a platform of supporting abortion rights, and won in those states.

But there are reasons to question the applicability of those results to the national elections in 2024. The most obvious issue is that polling doesn’t support the contention that abortion without restriction is the most critical issue for most voters. In a national poll in September 2023, only 5% of voters listed abortion as their most important issue. And surveys by the left-wing Pew Research Center indicate majorities of voters support some limits on abortions, like parental notification for children under 18 or restrictions on abortions later in a pregnancy, that are prohibited by the Ohio amendment. 

Furthermore, Georgia reelected its Republican statewide officials and maintained majorities in both houses of the General Assembly last year, after passing the “heartbeat bill” that places significant restrictions on abortions. Florida was swept by a red wave last year, despite passing first a 15-week and then a 6-week limit on abortions without medical or legal cause. (A wise party might look to those states for examples of the types of leaders it should nominate for national office, if only we had a wise party.)

Beyond the issue of abortion, it’s risky at best to extrapolate results in four individual states to a presidential election. Other than the Ohio referendum, voters were electing candidates with positions on a variety of issues, not making up-or-down votes on a specific policy. Kentucky had a popular incumbent governor running for re-election, and he still wasn’t able to flip any of the down-ballot statewide seats. Although the governor of Virginia is a Republican, the state hasn’t voted for a Republican for President since 2004, so a narrow Democrat win in the legislature is more of a return to a historical trend that keeps the state government balanced between red and blue than a shocking upset for the Democrats. 

If I were a Republican candidate for national office wanting to learn from yesterday’s results, I’d take the following lessons. First, I’d need to realize that my party’s messaging on abortion is a disaster – as noted above, majorities of voters are passing policies that majorities of voters don’t even agree with. I’d be switching my policy focus to areas like financial, educational, and occupational support for pregnant women and poor mothers. To the extent I talked at all about abortion from a legal standpoint, it would be in the framework of reasonable, consensus limits, and not bans (the GOP did pivot to this framework to some degree in Virginia, but too late to do much good).

Second, I’d be focusing on the issues that voters indicate are higher priorities, like inflation, jobs, and national security. There’s no lack of evidence for the failures of the Biden administration in these areas, or that voters are increasingly tired of those failures. I’d want to make it clear that I could beat Biden and reverse the failed policies in the areas that voters say are most important.

And third, I’d be looking at governors who have repeatedly won elections in swing or blue states, to follow their blueprint of both winning elections and getting results for their constituents. But the good news for me is that I don’t have to run myself and copy someone else’s strategy. We’ll have three such governors on the debate stage tonight – Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, and Nikki Haley. I’ll be watching with great interest.

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