In today’s edition of The Backchannel I look at something that keeps happening, even though it’s only barely part of the larger or at least national political news narrative. In short, Democrats keep winning elections. The trend continued Tuesday night. And even when they don’t win they’re consistently exceeding their margins from 2020 and even more from 2016.
But why? As I note below, the biggest and clearest reason appears to be abortion rights. But is it just that?
In some ways, this is a replay of the debate among Democrats before the 2022 midterm. Should they focus on abortion rights? Or democracy issues? Or maybe something else entirely?
The upshot of the 2022 election was that the advocates of democracy and abortion rights were both right, but not precisely in the way either group had understood. Abortion rights were clearly the single most driving issue. But for many voters those two issues and other had congealed into a broader sense that Republicans represented a form of political extremism that was a threat to the democratic order and basic rights that people took for granted. Jan. 6 and the right to a safe and legal abortion seem like the most unrelated things in the world. But for many voters they had become part of a common story, a story of a looming threat that shapes political choices and got people to the ballot box.
In this way, we’re still in the post-Dobbs, 2022 midterm moment.
Under the Radar
Originally Published: May 18, 2023 12:07 p.m.
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.