AMAC Exclusive – By Walter Samuel
In politics, like many fields, perceptions govern reality. With more data coming in on the returns of last week’s elections and some time to process the results, it is worth examining how each party now perceives the outcomes and how that may influence their behavior next year.
Andy Beshear, “Woke Hero?”
Two weeks ago, I suggested that Kentucky’s gubernatorial election would greatly influence the direction of national politics even though Democrat Andy Beshear’s power in the face of a legislature with Republican super-majorities in both houses is virtually nil.
If Beshear had lost, Democrats would likely have written off “ancestrally” Democrat rural areas in future elections in order to double down on a suburban, student, and small city turnout strategy. It would have been a near fatal sign for Senators Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
Instead, Beshear’s victory has produced a different conclusion. Republicans have unsurprisingly fallen into infighting, with anti-Trump forces blaming the former president and Trump-aligned elements pointing out that Republican candidate Daniel Cameron was a McConnell protégé since his teenage years.
The reality is less dramatic: a governor with a 60 percent approval rating won reelection by five percent in an election that was only partially nationalized. The only real conclusion to draw is that neither Republicans in red states nor Democrats in blue ones can reliably count on elections naturally turning on national partisanship rather than local issues and candidate quality.
It is not just Republicans who seem determined to read too much into the results in a state where both Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell won by similarly comfortable margins (62 percent to 36 percent for Trump, 59 percent to 38 percent for McConnell). Andy Beshear has become a hero to liberal Democrats. On two of the most hot-button social issues – abortion and transgender participation in sports – Beshear has been outspokenly liberal, vetoing legislation that would have kept biological men out of women’s sports in Kentucky high schools and which would have restricted surgery and hormones for minors. Just as anti-Trump Republicans seized on Cameron’s defeat to target their intraparty rivals, left-wing Democrats have seized upon the victory of the white male scion of a Southern political dynasty to argue that identity politics helps rather than hurts Democrats.
As Nate Silver has fallen out of favor with Gen Z liberals due to his skepticism of lockdowns, woke shibboleths, and more recently the Joe Biden presidency, a doctoral student writing on Substack under the name Ettingermentum has surged to prominence with more than 15,000 paid subscribers and podcast appearances with Rick Wilson and other media “political experts.” With a firm grasp of history, the author is able to produce pieces running to several thousand words to explain why Stacey Abrams was a grifting scam artist (not an entirely baseless observation) who failed in large part because she was too centrist on crime. Among his more widely shared articles in Democrat operative circles is a two-volume “Electoral History of Transphobia” which posits that in every single case, opposing the most extreme Pro-Trans positions has spelled electoral disaster. The thesis has told leftists facing the first real cultural pushback of their lifetimes that their positions are so self-evidently true that even their opponents secretly agree with them, only acting out of political advantage, and that these advantages have always failed to materialize. His audience is all too dismissive of the contradiction inherent in this argument: If social conservatives only are pursuing these policies for electoral advantage and they have backfired 100% of the time, why would they continue? But pointing out logical contradictions is not where the money or audience is anymore.
Andy Beshear has become a hero to Ettingermentum, who all but dedicated the third volume of his electoral history of “transphobia” to the Kentucky Governor. In this telling, if Beshear can win in Kentucky by effectively telling social conservatives to pound sand, any Democrat politician anywhere suggesting that the party should appease voters worried about gender ideology in schools or unlimited support for abortion is either ignorant or self-servingly dishonest.
For liberals, rather than Beshear winning despite his strong support for abortion access and veto of a ban on biological men in women’s sports, he won precisely because of his advocacy for these issues. The implication is that Biden is only in trouble because he has not leaned into them enough and has been too right-wing on unrelated issues like Israel. (One of the author’s recent pieces is about George H.W. Bush and entitled “The President who Stood up to Israel and Won,” ignoring, of course, that Bush lost with a mere 37 percent of the vote).
These conclusions have been reinforced by election results elsewhere in the country. In Pennsylvania, Democrats swept court and local schoolboard races, and in Ohio, an amendment to enshrine abortion in the state constitution passed by a 14 percent margin.
The Triumph of Small-C Conservatism
Claims by Democrats that the results last week were an endorsement of a far-left social agenda are delusional, but the denial among conservatives that they mean nothing or reflect spending disparities is equally baseless.
Since the Dobbs decision reversed Roe v. Wade in 2022, a series of referendums have been held either de facto or de jure on the legality of abortion, while high-profile judicial races have become a proxy on the issue. In each of these cases, a flood of national money has provided the pro-abortion side with a substantial spending advantage. When the results have come in showing lopsided results for the pro-choice side, with even Kentucky rejecting an amendment in November 2022 declaring the state constitution contained no right to an abortion, conservatives have blamed the losses on “special interests” and “misinformed voters.”
At a certain point, the time for excuses runs out. Ohio has effectively voted on the issue twice in the space of four months. In August, Ohio voters rejected by a 57.1 percent to 42.9 percent margin a constitutional amendment referred by the state legislature which would have raised the threshold for future amendments from 50 percent to 60 percent. Sponsors made no secret of their intention to prevent the passage of another amendment on the November ballot which would have enshrined virtually unlimited access to abortion.
Last week, that amendment passed by a nearly identical margin of 56.6 percent to 43.4 percent. The similarity of the results makes clear that the voters knew precisely what they were voting on. There may well be a financial and media factor in causing voters to adopt positions in favor of legal abortion in general, but the idea that they were somehow confused when they voted identically on two entirely different amendments seems dubious at best.
In Virginia, Republican leaders have fallen into infighting over whether the decision of Governor Youngkin’s PAC to campaign aggressively on 15-week abortion ban with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother cost them both legislative chambers by narrow margins. It clearly did not deliver them a trifecta, but given that they carried every seat Biden won by less than five percent, that seems a bit beside the point.
The error Youngkin’s PAC made with messaging on the 15-week ban is probably not the timescale, but in assuming voters care about it. The reality seems to be that there is a large group of voters in the middle who resent efforts to change the status quo and perceive any restrictions or bans as aggression in a culture war they want no part of.
Evidence for the existence of this group has always lain in polls showing more than 70 percent support for Roe v. Wade, which conservatives often ascribed to voters not understanding what the decision did or did not allow. But what they missed was that the decision did not allow politicians to change much on the issue, which allowed them to focus on other things.
The best evidence for a resurgence not in liberalism but in small-c conservatism comes from examining the remaining election results. First, Moms for Liberty, the parental rights group that took the lead in running school board candidates in Florida, tried to go national, fielding slates across Virginia and Pennsylvania as well as the Midwest. The overwhelming majority of these candidates lost, including in Loudoun County, which was ground zero for protests when a trans-identified student assaulted a girl in a women’s restroom and local officials covered it up.
At the same time, Democrats took control of Loudoun’s school board, however, voters ousted the Democratic District Attorney for her Republican opponent showing that they did care about leftist extremism, particularly when it comes to public safety, but may have grown skeptical about school culture wars. They voted for small-c conservatism.
The same was true in Pennsylvania’s Alleghany County, where Pittsburgh is located. While the Democrat candidate for Supreme Court received 63 percent of the vote in the county, the Democrat nominee for county executive, a member of the “Democratic” Socialists of America, only defeated her Republican opponent by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin. The incumbent Democrat district attorney won as a Republican after losing to a left-wing primary challenger.
Split ticket voting, then, was not only occurring in favor of Democrats in Kentucky and Mississippi. It occurred in Pennsylvania and Virginia in favor of Republicans – when Democrats were seen as the aggressors putting ideology above dealing with crime. Similarly, when Republican candidates were perceived as putting their own cultural issues above basic governance, they did poorly.
What does this mean for 2024?
This message seems lost on both parties. Republicans, however, are at least aware they have a problem when it comes to abortion, and evidence from primary polling indicates many GOP supporters might be as sick of non-stop discussions of kids’ books in elementary schools as swing voters appear to be. Democrats, however, are not only in denial of their problem, but many of the analysts with the greatest influence within the party are actively pushing the idea that the very things that hurt them are strengths.
If the net effect of the 2023 results is that Republicans awkwardly try to dodge the issue of abortion in 2024, but Biden and the Democrats double-down on the most radical parts of gender theory in schools, and soft on crime policies, the latter will be hurt far more than the former. Which is why at the moment, the results may well hurt Democrats more in the long run.
Walter Samuel is the pseudonym of a prolific international affairs writer and academic. He has worked in Washington as well as in London and Asia, and holds a Doctorate in International History.