US 2023 Off-Cycle Elections: Good News for Democrats
Implications of Last Night’s State and Local Races
Tuesday’s results were a relief for national Democrats. A prolonged period of dismal polls for President Biden—underwater job approval, 70% of the country believing it is on the wrong track, and him losing to Donald Trump in national and some key state polls—had Democratic officials nervous about 2024. But big wins for Democrats in Kentucky (governor), Ohio (constitutional amendment providing right to abortion), and Virginia (winning back the state assembly) delivered much needed good news.
Republicans, however, also had some wins. In New York, which continues to be a problem for Democrats, a Republican won the Suffolk County executive seat—for the first time in 20 years. Republicans made other gains in New England, flipping New Hampshire’s largest city’s mayorship in Manchester, winning a key Massachusetts state senate seat, and voting down a takeover of state utilities in Maine.
Two main questions emerge from Tuesday’s results. Will Democrats continue to outperform polls because of voter discontent with Republicans? Or were Tuesday’s results evidence the problem is with Joe Biden, not Democrats in general? Exit polls clearly indicate voters—including Democrats—believe Biden is too old to be president. But the election is a choice, and Trump’s unfavorables are extremely high.
Democrats once again pushed the abortion issue—and it worked. Republicans did not want to talk about abortion in this election, which allowed the Democrats to define the issue. Democrats portrayed Republicans as wanting to ban all abortions—not every Republican’s position, but by not engaging in the debate, Democratic ads were left unanswered. Republicans will have to find a better formula before November 2024 because the current strategy is not working. Nikki Haley has tried a more centrist approach to the issue that allows her to also attack more extreme positions from Democrats on the issue—and her poll numbers have improved significantly. But she still trails Donald Trump by a wide margin among Republican primary voters.
One year out from the 2024 elections, the electorate is unsettled and the outcome uncertain. The world is volatile—there could be many troublesome events to unfold over the next year in multiple places around the globe. The economy’s direction is unclear—but voters are clearly unhappy with the current status. President Biden’s age issue isn’t going away, but neither are Donald Trump’s legal challenges. Democrats had a good night on Tuesday, but it is not clear how much of a harbinger they will prove to be in a presidential year.
What comes next?
Tonight, the Republican National Committee will hold its third presidential primary debate in Miami, hosted by NBC News at the Miami-Dade Center for Performing Arts at 8:00pm EST, as Donald Trump holds a rally in nearby Hialeah, Florida. This debate will be the smallest yet, with five candidates qualifying: Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Tim Scott. For December’s debate, the Republican National Committee is attempting to narrow the field even further by requiring candidates to receive 6% support in at least two national polls, or both 6% in one national poll and 6% in one statewide poll in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Nevada. They also are enforcing a requirement of 80,000 unique donors, and at least 200 donors from each of 20 or more states and territories.
How much will it matter as Republican challengers attempt to cut down Trump’s polling leads? The answer remains to be seen, but as more voters begin to focus greater attention on their options as the primaries approach—Iowa caucuses are January 15—the stakes grow higher for the candidates continuing to make it onto the stage.