In 2021, Republican success in several high-profile off-year elections were interpreted by most observers to signal a GOP wave in 2022. In the end, Republicans did narrowly take back the U.S. House of Representatives, but lost a net of one U.S. Senate seat, and except in a few states underperformed lofty expectations.
This lack of voter follow-through happened for a variety of reasons, but was apparently due in significant part to many independent women turning out to support their pro-choice views in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade early in 2022. A second reason why Republicans underperformed in races for the Senate and House was that the GOP failed to recruit, in many cases, outstanding candidates to run in competitive races.
In the 2023 off-year elections just completed, Republicans once again did not do as well as they hoped, but there were very few contests of consequence. The question still remains: does 2023 forecast 2024?
A popular Democrat governor in the otherwise red state of Kentucky won re-election. Until a few days before the election, no one expected any other result, but a final poll suggested that the Republican challenger had closed the race to a virtual tie. That poll turned out to be an outlier, and the Democrat won by a relatively comfortable margin. At the same time, Republicans won every other statewide race, including for lieutenant governor, by big margins.
In the other gubernatorial race on Tuesday, Mississippi voters re-elected their GOP governor by a comfortable margin, as well as giving conservatives a sweep of statewide offices. Earlier this year, voters in Louisiana also replaced their Democrat Governor with Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry.
In Ohio, a reliable Republican state, an abortion rights ballot question passed, as did a ballot question legalizing marijuana.
In Virginia, the man who was primarily responsible for GOP optimism after the 2021 off-year elections, Governor Glenn Youngkin (who had won an upset victory that year), led an effort to win control of the state senate. He narrowly failed, and Virginia Republicans also narrowly lost control of the state House of Delegates following redistricting. Disappointing, yes, but hardly a political omen — although it probably ended a boomlet for Youngkin to run for president in 2024.
Based on the above, some liberal political commentators are already seeing in the results clear signs for next year’s national election. Predictably, the Biden administration is touting 2023 as a vindication for the president.
But what in reality can be gleaned from the few 2023 elections?
One lesson seems clear. Abortion rights restrictions will still motivate pro-choice voters, especially women, to vote for Democrats. Pro-life voters won the key victory last year in the U.S. Supreme Court when Roe vs. Wade was overturned, and the issue was returned to the states. Most Republicans are pro-life, but many independents, especially women, who might otherwise vote for Republicans, draw the line on abortion rights restrictions. Already, many Republican strategists are urging their party and its candidates to use caution in regard to expanding abortion restrictions in battleground states. The results in Ohio would seem to confirm this.
The second reason for GOP underperformance in 2022, the quality of Republican challengers, especially in competitive U.S. Senate races, already seems to be being addressed. Under Senate campaign chair Senator Steve Daines, strong conservative challengers seem to have been recruited for most races.
Another GOP disadvantage which helped Democrats in 2020 and 2021 was the expansion of the voting process with mail-in voting and ballot harvesting. Republican campaigns are reportedly encouraging their voters to make use of these new expansions of Election Day, as well as tighten ballot integrity and election security.
An off-year election in recent cycles does not offer real omens or trends for the next cycle, especially with so very few major contests. Of course, pundits and party publicists inevitably try to interpret the few elections to have greater implications than they do, but to suggest that 2023 signals a “blue wave” is about as useful as suggesting there would be a “red wave” in the 2022 cycle based solely on 2021 results.