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What this week’s vote and GOP debate mean for 2024

Republican candidates line the Miami stage for Wednesday's GOP debate.

Republican candidates line the Miami stage for Wednesday's GOP debate.

Jonah Hinebaugh-USA TODAY via Reuters

In a world obsessed with reading polls like prophecies, many are looking at Tuesday’s election results for evidence of where Americans really stand.

Despite Joe Biden’s lagging popularity, Democrats scored key victories on Election Day. They maintained control of the governorship in predominantly red Kentucky, made an impressive showing in Mississippi, and enshrined a constitutional right to abortion in Ohio. The abortion issue also helped Dems flip the House of Delegates and maintain control of the State Senate in Virginia.

So was Tuesday a harbinger of 2024?

Not if the five Republicans who took to the debate stage in Florida last night – former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott – have any say. With Donald Trump, who is 48 points ahead of second place DeSantis, refusing to take part, the debates are more of a pep rally for the Republican base than a competition at this point. But they reveal what the GOP thinks are winning and losing issues for the party.

Support for Israel was the biggest topic of debate, with candidates competing to display more support for American Jews domestically and Israel’s military abroad. National security followed close behind, and there was plenty of squabbling over who would be toughest on China. Meanwhile, the abortion issue got buried – it didn’t get mentioned until an hour and a half in.

But beyond the issues, Tuesday’s election results highlighted emerging threats to the GOP …

The power of the moderate Democrat: With the Republican Party reeling from the PR nightmare of taking three weeks to appoint a House speaker and the hard-right’s growing influence, many moderate Republicans and traditional conservatives are showing more of a willingness to shop around on the ballot.

Incumbent Democrat Andy Beshear’s win in Kentucky’s gubernatorial race and Democrat Brandon Presley’s narrow loss in his bid for the governor’s mansion in Mississippi are testaments to the power of the moderate Dem in suburbs, swing states, and even predominantly red ones like the Magnolia State, where Presley earned 47% of the vote.

Both candidates are being lauded as emerging political leaders because they can build coalitions, a strategy Democratic candidates running in inhospitable districts – and national elections – should heed. Beshear is one of the most popular governors in the country, despite running a state that voted for Trump by 26 points. His campaign leaned into the abortion issue and Medicaid access, rejected partisanship, and focused on jobs and the economy, gaining him cross-party appeal.

Abortion could help Biden’s popularity problem: We have seen what happened in Ohio before, and we're not talking about last August when Issue 1 – which concerned adding the right to abortion to the constitution – doubled turnout. Back in 2004, former President George W. Bush looked weak in the polls, so the GOP proposed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage in 11 key states, increasing socially conservative turnout in tight races among voters who might have otherwise stayed home.

Now, Democrats are taking a leaf from Bush’s playbook. At least 11 states are on track to have abortion-related measures on their ballots in 2024, including swing states like Arizona, Florida, and Pennsylvania. The election will almost certainly be close, and getting abortion on the ballot could overcome Biden’s lukewarm popularity and get Democratic and moderate voters to the polls in the states where he needs them the most.

In Ohio, 18 counties that voted for Trump in 2020 voted in favor of Issue 1. The same goes for 67 other Trump-won counties in the six states where abortion has been on the ballot since Roe v. Wade was overturned.

In previous debates, only former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley recognized that abortion restriction was a liability for the GOP. But following Tuesday’s election, DeSantis softened his stance, while Haley continued calling for compromise, and Vivek Ramaswamy said “male responsibility” and paternity tests were the answer.

The moral of the story: Even with Biden’s approval rating in the tank, this week's election showed how making a few key counties a little less red can be decisive – a strategy Democrats will no doubt be hoping to repeat in November 2024. Meanwhile, Republican candidates will prepare for the next debate on Dec. 6 in the hopes of wooing voters ahead of the first primary in Iowa on Jan. 15.


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