Under the Radar

MT. GILEAD, NC - MAY 17: A man fills out a ballot at a voting booth on May 17, 2022 in Mt. Gilead, North Carolina. North Carolina is one of several states holding midterm primary elections. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
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With so much high drama and stark danger in the headlines, I wanted to focus your attention on something different, and arguably much more important. This has been underway for months. But now it’s managed to break into the pages of insider sheets like Axios, which is a news event in itself. The quick and short of it: Democrats continue to over-perform in election after election.

We know that Republicans had a dismally disappointing midterm even though they did manage to capture a razor-thin House majority. But that trend has continued and arguably intensified. According to Daily Kos Elections numbers, in 18 state legislative races held in 2023, Democrats have over-performed presidential results by an average of 6.6 points. Compared to 2016, it’s 10.9%. The DeSantis-backed candidate for Mayor of Jacksonville, Daniel Davis, got upset by underdog Democrat Donna Deegan. The Post has a good run-down of these and other races from Tuesday.

Of course we know about high profile contests like the Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice race in which Janet Protasiewicz scored a commanding victory over former Justice Daniel Kelly and shifted the balance of power back to the Democrats.

The clearest through-line to all of these results is abortion. In many of these campaigns, like in Wisconsin, it’s explicitly front and center. In other races, like for mayor of various cities across the country, it has little immediate impact. Is it other issues? A general taint on the GOP brand? Are Democrats just doing a lot better than Joe Biden’s anemic approval ratings would indicate? Is the politics of abortion trickling through to races for offices which have no immediate impact on abortion rights?

I think the best we can say is that abortion is the dominant issue, the clearest single issue. Whether it’s the single issue, pushing the rest to the background, is impossible to know. For the purposes of this post, I don’t think that question of degree matters. It’s also possible that some of this is not a signal of the national mood per se but Democrats putting renewed focus on state and local races they didn’t focus on until very recently. But I’m not sure that’s much of a distinction since focusing on winning elections is, after all, how you win elections, and greater focus on sub-federal races is highly likely to affect federal ones as well. In any case, the pattern seems too consistent and pervasive not to be rooted in something deeper.

The relevant point is that the record of actual elections is telling a very different story than the mixed or foreboding story being told in the national political conversation. We still seem to be in the Kansas abortion referendum political universe, which of course is really the post-Roe political universe. But the results of elections on the ground — in fairness, mostly state and local rather than federal races — is untethered from the national political conversation.

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