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And now, onto the business:
Elections provide answers. They also pose a new set of questions. Here are some that come out of this week’s election.
- Is this the beginning of the end for Donald Trump? The former president clearly remains a powerful figure within the Republican Party but he may have cost his party some seats in Washington and statehouses across the country that they probably should have won. This isn’t the first time this has happened, either. Here in Virginia, Democrats made big gains to win the General Assembly during the Trump years – and then promptly lost the House of Delegates, and the governorship, once he left office. It’s hard to avoid seeing a cause and effect here. Will Republicans now start reevaluating how much they want to hook their fortunes to such a polarizing figure?
Objectively speaking, Republicans should have won bigger this year for lots of reasons. Historically, the out-of-power party traditionally makes big gains. The American Presidency Project says that in 22 midterms from 1934 to 2018, the president’s party has averaged a loss of 28 House seats and four Senate seats. We don’t know exactly what the House numbers will be yet this year but Democrats may yet break even in the Senate, pending the results of a likely runoff in Georgia. Whatever the final numbers wind up being, Republicans underperformed.
Further, the other “fundamentals” in the election, as political scientists like to call them, were mostly in the Republicans’ favor. Inflation is high. Crime is up. The president’s approval ratings are down. Given all these things – midterms with the fundamentals in the Republicans’ favor – the party should have won bigger. It did not. Why? The two main things Democrats had going for them were abortion rights (more on that below) and warnings that a Trump-led Republican Party endangers democracy itself. Given how poorly many of the most Trump-aligned candidates fared, it seems that was a strong enough argument to counter voter discontent over the economy. The only reason we’re even hearing warnings about the fragile state of U.S. democracy is because of one man – Trump – who has channeled a dark id of the American psyche.
Trump has cost Republicans in other ways. The party – at Trump’s behest – nominated a lot of problematic candidates. Herschel Walker may yet win in Georgia but, given how well Republicans performed in other Peach State races, a different candidate might have won without a runoff. Ditto for Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, and maybe even the dangerous Kari Lake, the gubernatorial candidate in Arizona who wouldn’t pledge to honor election results she didn’t like. Trump-backed election deniers for secretary of state (a position some states elect but which we don’t in Virginia) won in some places, but not in any of the swing states where they could have pushed the country to the brink in 2024. Those voters may have saved the country from a constitutional crisis – or worse.
Does a sobered Republican Party look at these results and conclude that it’s time to move on from Trump? If so, they certainly have options: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is the most obvious. He won big in his reelection campaign; it seems clear that Florida is no longer the swing state it had been. DeSantis has certain Trump-like qualities, which might make him a more acceptable substitute to the Trumpists. Or, if Republicans really want to move on, they have another option: Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. I’m skeptical whether Youngkin can win a presidential nomination given the current state of the Republican Party – but if he somehow did, he’d be a much easier sell nationally. Conservatism used to equate with caution; a more cautious Republican Party would ditch Trump for Youngkin.
- Will abortion rights be a winning issue for Virginia Democrats in 2023? Next year the entire General Assembly will be on the ballot, and this will be a doozy of an election. Republicans presently have a narrow hold (52-48) on the House of Delegates; Democrats have an equally narrow (21-19) hold on the state Senate. For Republicans, this is an opportunity to win control of the whole state legislature – at the same time they already have the governorship. This is a rare opportunity to enact whatever they want to enact. That’s the talking point for both parties, because Democrats will warn against giving Republicans unfettered control of state government. More to the point, the flashpoint in many races is likely to be abortion. Youngkin has said he’ll push for a ban on the procedure at 15 weeks of pregnancy – but that also reflects the reality that for now, he has to figure out how to win over at least one Democratic state senator to get that through. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. That single issue will dominate the 2023 General Assembly session – and the elections that follow. Democrats will point out that, yes, Republicans want a ban at 15 weeks now, but what would they want if they didn’t have to thread their way through a Democratic state Senate? Would they push for a total ban? That’s not a question Youngkin has wanted to answer, for obvious political reasons.
It’s clear now that abortion rights is a winning issue in some places. This summer, Kansas – conservative, reliably Republican Kansas – stunned us by voting down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have enabled more abortion restrictions. This election, Kentucky – conservative, reliably Republican Kentucky – just did the same. Michigan – swing state Michigan – also voted 56% to amend the state constitution to guarantee the right to an abortion. California and Vermont also enshrined amendments but those were more predictable votes. The votes in Kentucky and Michigan, coming on the heels of Kansas, are more telling. If put to a vote, some voters who otherwise support Republican candidates will vote in favor of abortion rights. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’d vote for an actual Democrat for the state legislature, but some Democratic candidates next year will surely try to make that connection. (I analyzed the Kansas vote in a previous column.)
Kentucky, being the most conservative of the four states that this week voted in favor of abortion rights, is the most instructive place to look. In the 2020 presidential election, Democrats carried only two counties – Jefferson County (Louisville) and Fayette County (Lexington), a classic expression of the rural-urban divide we see in politics today. This week, though, the abortion rights side carried 21 counties, meaning that 19 Republican counties backed abortion rights.
A closer look at the numbers: Jefferson County voted 59.1% Democratic in 2020, Fayette County 59.3%. This year the abortion rights side came in at 71% in Jefferson County and 73% in Fayette County. The more interesting numbers, though, are all those Republican counties that flipped.
Franklin County (around the state capital of Frankfort) went 49.5% for Trump and 48.5% for Biden; this year it went 67% for abortion rights. Scott County, just north of Lexington, went 61.4% for Trump; this year it went 58% for abortion rights. The two strongest Trump counties that voted for abortion rights were Bourbon County (yes, it’s Kentucky) and Clark County. Bourbon went 64% for Trump, 58% for abortion rights. Clark went 65% for Trump, 51% for abortion rights.
What would that mean in Virginia terms? Counties in Virginia that went 65% for Trump included Amherst County and Rockbridge County. Could we really see pro-abortion rights candidates win in those places in 2023? I’m highly doubtful – it’s one thing to vote for something in a single-issue referendum, it’s quite another for a live candidate where you might agree on one issue but disagree on others. It’s hard to see a Republican district flipping Democratic because of this one issue. Still, these results suggest that Democrats in some competitive districts might find abortion a winning issue. For instance, the newly drawn Senate district that covers Roanoke, Salem and parts of Roanoke County and Montgomery County. This district pits two incumbents against each other: Democrat John Edwards and Republican David Suetterlein. The special masters who drew the maps used election data to pronounce this district between 52% and 54% Republican. That would give an edge to Suetterlein, but it’s still a competitive district. The Kentucky abortion vote suggests a 54% Republican district might be quite amenable to a pro-abortion rights argument. I doubt few other words will pass Edwards’ lips in 2023.
The Kentucky results and the others also show why the Republican governor of West Virginia, Jim Justice, was so adamant that legislators in his state not put the abortion rights question to a referendum. If they had, it might well have passed.
- Will Maryland force Virginia to come up with a retail market for cannabis? Marylanders voted 65% in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana. (Cannabis has come to be the preferred term, although “wacky weed,” “devil’s lettuce” and plain old “pot” are acceptable on some references.) So did voters in Missouri, but Maryland is what matters to us for business purposes. When Democrats controlled the Virginia General Assembly, they legalized cannabis for personal issue and set in motion a framework for establishing a retail market – cannabis growers, cannabis processors, cannabis retailers, the whole farm-to-market system. That legislation required more work, though, and the Democrats hadn’t counted on Republicans winning the House of Delegates in 2021. (Back to the first point: Democrats thought the gains they made during the Trump years constituted a permanent realignment; they did not.) This year, Republicans couldn’t agree on a retail plan. Some Republicans remain against cannabis altogether; more libertarian types are OK with it but disagree with Democrats on how the market should be set up. Democrats wanted to design a market with social equity in mind, giving preference to people who had been convicted of cannabis offenses. Republicans, being Republicans, favored a more free-market approach and weren’t inclined to reward people who had broken the law. The result: Virginia remains in a gray area, where cannabis is legal but can’t be commercialized. (It’s like saying you can have a moonshine still in your backyard but you can’t set up an industrial-scale brewery.)
Now a neighboring state has legalized reefer. Maryland’s legislature will convene in January and one of its tasks will be to devise the rules for a retail market. Will the prospect of a retail market across the river prompt Virginia to do the same? If so, I call the attention of our legislators to some of my previous columns where I suggested ways this market could work to the benefit of rural Virginia – by limiting growhouses to the most economically distressed localities. That may be more market tinkering than Republicans are comfortable with, but it would have the advantage of benefiting their districts.
Of note: Three states rejected legal cannabis: Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota. The latter is notable because in 2020, voters there approved legal cannabis but the state Supreme Court later invalidated the result on the grounds that the question had been improperly worded. Now South Dakota voters have changed their minds – at least the ones that voted this year in a lower turnout election.
There will be more questions coming out of this week’s election, but these are the first three.