Heather Cox Richardson
Yesterday was a bad day for extremism in the United States of America.
In Ohio, voters enshrined the right to abortion in the state constitution; in Kentucky, voters reelected Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, for another four-year term; in Pennsylvania, voters put Democrat Daniel McCaffery, who positioned himself as a defender of abortion rights, on the state supreme court; in Rhode Island, Gabe Amo, a former Biden staffer who emphasized his experience in the Biden White House, won an open seat in the House of Representatives to become Rhode Island’s first Black member of Congress; and nationwide, right-wing Moms4Liberty and anti-transgender-rights school board candidates tended to lose their races.
In Virginia, Governor Glenn Youngkin campaigned hard to flip the state senate to the Republicans, telling voters that if his party had control of the whole government he would push through a measure banning abortion after 15 weeks. This has been a ploy advanced by Republicans to suggest they are moderating their stance on abortion, and Youngkin appeared to be trying out the argument as a basis for a run for the presidency.
But voters, who are still angry at the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which protected abortion rights until about 24 weeks, after fetal abnormalities are evident, rejected the suggestion they should settle for a smaller piece of what they feel has been taken from them by extremists on the Supreme Court.
Today, Youngkin indicated he will not run for president in 2024.
The Democrats who won have prioritized good governance, including the protection of fundamental reproductive rights. In Kentucky, Beshear focused on record economic growth in the state—in his first term he secured almost $30 billion in private-sector investments in the economy, creating about 49,000 full-time jobs—and his able handling of emergencies, as well as his support for education and, crucially, reproductive rights.
In Virginia, Democrat Schuyler VanValkenburg beat incumbent Republican state senator Siobhan Dunnavant, the sponsor of a culture war “parents’ rights” law that was behind the removal of books from schools. While Dunnavant tried to convince voters that VanValkenburg, a high school history and government teacher, was in favor of showing pornography to high school students, he responded with a defense of teachers and an attack on book banning, reinforcing democratic principles. As Greg Sargent noted in the Washington Post, right-wing culture wars appear to be losing their potency as opponents emphasize American principles.
In Ohio, exit polls showed that Republicans as well as Democrats backed the protection of reproductive rights. As Katie Paris of the voter mobilization group Red Wine and Blue put it: “Reproductive freedom and democracy are not partisan issues.”
After such a rejection, a political party that supports democracy would accept its losses and rethink the message it was presenting to voters. But since the 1990s, far-right Republicans have insisted that election losses simply prove they have not moved far enough to the right.
That pattern was in full view today as front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination Donald Trump explained away Republican Daniel Cameron’s loss in Kentucky by blaming it on Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who MAGA Republicans insist is too moderate.
Cameron had tied himself closely to Trump, antiabortion, and the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor in her own home in a mistaken drug raid. Three days ago, Trump had said that Cameron had made “a huge surge” after Trump endorsed him and voters saw “he’s not really ‘a McConnell guy.’ They only try to label him that because he comes from the Great State of Kentucky.” Trump assured Cameron, “I will help you!”
Now Trump blames McConnell. Right-wing podcast host Mark R. Levin echoed Trump when he told his 3.8 million followers on X that “RINOs have no winnable message.”
They are not alone in insisting that Republicans lost not because they are extremist but because they aren’t extremist enough. Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene wrote that “Republicans are losing Republican voters because the base is fed up with weak Republicans who never do anything to actually stop the communist democrats…. The Republican Party is tone deaf and weak…. Republican voters are energized and can not wait to vote for President Trump…. [T]he Republican Party has only a short time to change their weak ways before they lose the base for years to come.”
It is worth remembering that just six days ago, House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) called Greene a close friend and said he did not disagree with her on many issues.
Last night’s results highlight a key problem for the Republicans going into 2024. Their presumptive front-runner, former president Trump, is responsible for putting on the Supreme Court the justices who overturned Roe v. Wadeand is on video saying he thinks that women who get abortions must be punished. That position has made him a hero with the party’s evangelical base, including lawmakers such as House speaker Johnson. But it is demonstrably unpopular in the general voting population.
As writer Molly Jong-Fast said today: “Women don’t want to die for Mike Johnson’s religious beliefs.”
Within MAGA Republicans’ refusal to admit that their far-right positions are unpopular is a disdain for those voters who disagree with them. Journalist Karen Kasler, who covers the Ohio statehouse, reported the statement of Republican Senate president Matt Huffman in the wake of yesterday’s election loss. “This isn’t the end,” he said. “It is really just the beginning of a revolving door of ballot campaigns to repeal or replace Issue 1.”
Ohio House speaker Jason Stephens’s statement more explicitly rejected the decision of 56.62% of Ohio voters. “I remain steadfastly committed to protecting life, and that commitment is unwavering,” he said. “The legislature has multiple paths that we will explore to continue to protect innocent life. This is not the end of the conversation.”
Later today, 27 of the 67 Ohio House Republicans signed a statement taking a stand against the abortion measure approved yesterday and vowing to “do everything in our power” to stop it.
In a conversation on the right-wing cable show Newsmax, former senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) complained that young people turned out because there were “sexy things” on the ballot like abortion and marijuana. He warned: “[P]ure democracies are not the way to run a country.”
The sentiment that it is not important to let everyone vote appeared to be at work yesterday in Mississippi, where at least nine precincts in Democratic-leaning Hinds County ran out of ballots. The most populous county in the state, Hinds County is 70% Black and includes the city of Jackson, which is almost 83% Black. Officials rushed to print more ballots, but the lines ballooned. After a judge tried to remedy the situation by extending the voting hours in the county by an hour, the Republican Party of Mississippi fought that order.
Republican governor Tate Reeves won reelection.
There was, though, another blow to the Republicans yesterday: special counsel David Weiss, who has been investigating President Biden’s son Hunter for the past five years, undermined Republican conspiracy theories when he told the House Judiciary Committee that no one is interfering with his investigation and that he, alone, makes the decisions about it.
Earlier this year, House Republicans produced an IRS employee who claimed that Biden administration officials had pressured the IRS to back off from the investigation. Weiss made it clear that accusation was wrong. “At no time was I blocked, or otherwise prevented from pursuing charges or taking the steps necessary in the investigation by other United States Attorneys, the Tax Division or anyone else at the Department of Justice,” he told the committee.
Nonetheless, in the wake of yesterday’s damaging election results, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, Representative James Comer (R-KY), today issued subpoenas to Hunter Biden and the president’s brother James.