Election night 2023 sent shockwaves through both parties. Democrats pulled out some unexpected wins and Republicans got schooled on both culture wars issues and Donald Trump’s unfavorability in advance of the 2024 presidential, House and Senate races.
The Democratic wins matter for several reasons and also highlight how Democrats should approach 2024. Off-year elections are notorious for low-voter turnout and overall voter apathy. Republican strategists were banking on that — literally, with huge funding via Super PACS and other outside fundraising — to solidify a narrative going into 2024.
That narrative never materialized. Instead GOP Super PACS that had poured money into Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky discovered money can’t buy votes when voters are committed to a candidate or an issue. The resounding issues were abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.
In deep red Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear won a second term in a state that went hard for Donald Trump in 2020 and re-elected Mitch McConnell despite Democrats funneling $40 million into his challenger, veteran Amy McGrath. Beshear’s GOP challenger was state attorney general, Daniel Cameron, a rising Republican star and one of the few Black candidates ever endorsed by Trump. Cameron is also a protégé of Senate Minority Leader McConnell.
Beshear and Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman are Kentucky’s only Democratic statewide elected officials.
Beshear is pro-choice, which may have played a key role in his re-election and Cameron’s defeat as abortion was very much a factor in Tuesday’s voting. In April 2020, Beshear vetoed a bill that would have allowed Attorney General Cameron to suspend abortions during the COVID-19 pandemic and exercise more power regulating clinics that offer abortions.
Beshear is also strongly pro-LGBTQ+ rights. He supports legal same-sex marriage and nondiscrimination laws that include LGBTQ+ people. Beshear became Kentucky’s first sitting governor to attend a rally staged by the Fairness Campaign in the Capitol Rotunda. In March 2023, Beshear vetoed a bill that would create new regulations and restrictions for transgender youth, including a ban on gender-affirming care, but the Republican-dominated legislature overrode his veto.
Republican groups, including Cameron’s campaign, used Beshear’s veto of the bill in several ads and campaign speeches to argue that Beshear supports surgeries for minors, which he does not. Cameron has strong anti-LGBTQ+ stances and sued the Biden administration over a policy that would have made discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity a violation of Title IX.
In Pennsylvania and Ohio, abortion rights were on the ballot. The Ohio vote on State Issue 1 was solid with “yes on 1″ votes winning by double digits. The measure codifies abortion rights by adding to the Ohio state constitution the “right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions,” including abortions. It passed with a surprisingly large margin in the red state that Trump won twice by eight points and which elected a Republican governor and senator in 2022.
Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Connie Schultz, a native Ohioan who is also married to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, said on MSNBC’s “The Reid Out,” “Here I am at age 66 telling men still that they have no business trying to control women’s bodies. You have not begun to see what we are capable of in this presidential race.”
In Pennsylvania, Dan McCaffery won the open Supreme Court seat, beating the well-funded Republican candidate, Carolyn Carluccio, 52.9% to 47.2%. Democrats now hold a 5-2 majority on the seven-member court. This means Democrats keep an unbeatable majority on the court. This will be critical in 2024 court fights over mail-in ballots and election certification, as Pennsylvania is a pivotal, must-win swing state.
The Associated Press reports at least $22 million was spent on the race, a number that may be a record in Pennsylvania. Top contributors include billionaire GOP donor Jeffrey Yass through his Commonwealth Leaders Fund, along with Fair Courts America. Both benefitted Carluccio’s campaign, with FCA spending more than $700,000 on a TV attack ad targeting McCaffery.
During the primary, Carluccio also sought the endorsement of the PA Pro-Life Federation, which wants to completely ban abortion with no exceptions. She received endorsements from pro-life groups, including the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation and the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania.
In an interview with PGN, McCaffery said, “[Whether] you’re talking about abortion care, trans rights, the right to vote, the right to marry who you love — we’re now kind of in a situation right now where I think the United States Supreme Court is really rolled back…when you start seeing these rights being peeled away by the United States Supreme Court under the federal Constitution, you quickly realize that all of those issues are now going to have to be re-litigated in state courts. And that’s why we’re at an inflection point in our country’s history.”
Justices are elected to 10-year terms and run for retention to stay on the court.
In Virginia, another battleground state for 2024, GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin had hoped to flip the state’s Senate to Republican control, like the House. Instead, the House flipped Democratic and the Senate remained controlled by Democrats. Youngkin had used abortion as a messaging tool, saying that with control of the legislature he could pass a 15-week “limit” on abortion, with exceptions.
As PGN reported in 2021, Youngkin won the Virginia governorship in an upset victory when he ran on parental rights and banning LGBTQ+ books and Critical Race Theory. An incendiary political ad during the Virginia governor’s race had cited Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Beloved,” as harmful and traumatizing to white high school students in Virginia.
More than 67,000 Democrats crossed over to give him the win and Youngkin has been seen as a future presidential contender ever since.
There was also a win for LGBTQ+ people in Virginia when House Del. Danica Roem, who is openly trans, won her race for the state Senate. In 2017, Roem flipped a Virginia House seat blue and was sworn in as the first openly transgender state legislator in the U.S.
Politico noted another big win was for New Jersey Democrats — though it didn’t make many headlines. New Jersey Democrats held onto their legislative majorities and expanded them.
Culture wars dominated the campaign ads and media coverage with a focus by Republicans on Democrats as too pro-LGBTQ and too pro-abortion. Angry school board meetings with relentless debates about sex education and school policies on whether to inform parents if their children identify as different genders in schools became a regular focal point — “parental rights.”
Politico noted, “Republicans — benefiting from the unpopularity of President Joe Biden, the collapse of two major offshore wind projects and backlash to LGBTQ-friendly policies in public schools — had been hopeful at winning a majority in the state Senate or the Assembly for the first time in more than 20 years.”
It didn’t happen. Ousted were anti-abortion Republicans like Ed Durr, who claimed women should keep their legs closed and who wanted to “spay women like dogs.”
In 2022, Durr introduced a “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would have prevented New Jersey students through high school from learning about either sexual orientation or gender identity.
“This is a big night for Democrats,” Gov. Phil Murphy told NJ Spotlight News.
Richard Yeselson, a member of the editorial board of Dissent magazine tweeted, “Tonight makes Biden’s problems look worse. If Dems had done poorly, the political challenges would be seen as broadly based, multi-factorial. But, in fact, those problems are, essentially, specific to Biden. Dems don’t have a party problem. They have a Biden problem.”
That may be one narrative, but the counter to that is that these wins actually make Biden look like he leads a party in sync with American voters, and that Trump-supported measures and Trump-endorsed candidates are out of touch with what Americans really want.