Democrats are finding ways to advance their candidates and causes in traditionally red states.
There is now an unofficial playbook for their successes.
One of the key factors is clearly the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
Democrats can still win in hostile territory. Tuesday's elections show that while the party may never reach its former heights in increasing red states, it can still notch victories that continue to claw back power.
There is increasingly a playbook that has allowed candidates like Andy Beshear, Laura Kelly, and Raphael Warnock to win elections. And in the wake of Roe's reversal, voter fury has led abortion rights advocates to additional victories in places like Ohio, Kentucky, and Kansas.
In a different era, their success might be less remarkable. Some states have long elected Democrats at the local level while rejecting Republicans at the national level and vice-versa. The reality is that Americans split their ballots less than ever before. Divided state governments are less common. While the number of split congressional districts is at a historic low. The difficulty in becoming the exception is slowly becoming the rule — to the point that some pundits want to write off entire states.
Republicans are making inroads in states too, especially in New York. While it remains to be seen how long their victories may continue, it is a further illustration that there can be competitive races in states that are largely taken for granted.
Here are some of the ways Democrats are still winning:
Keep it local.
Political junkies might roll their eyes when they hear former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's adage but look at the results. In Kentucky, GOP Attorney General Daniel Cameron spent the final weeks of his race touting his ties to Trump. While incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear talked up job creation, infrastructure improvements, and rural internet access. One of the easiest ways to build bridges with voters skeptical of the national party might be to actually build a bridge.
In Kansas, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly won reelection in part by focusing on her desire to work with Republicans. And in Arizona, Gov. Katie Hobbs built her national profile on contesting former President Donald Trump's election lies. Hobbs made it clear she felt democracy itself was on the ballot, but she also made sure Arizonans that Republicans were backing her campaign. Meanwhile, Sen. Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, talked about trying to lower gas prices. Both of the Democrats won in Arizona, a place where Republicans dominated on the statewide level until very recently.
Don't shy away from dynasties
Americans may have lost trust in government. It's clear they still support brand names though. After all, there's a reason why Louisiana Democrats kept putting up Landrieus for as long as they could. Former Gov. John Bel Edwards, who was term-limited out of office, has familial ties to local office that go back to the 1890s. In Arizona, Sen. Kelly built on the legacy of his wife, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's dad served in state government.
—Dan Bayens (@danbayens) November 8, 2023
Tuesday was the 15th time the Beshear name has appeared on a Kentucky ballot. Perhaps, it's not surprising that like his father, Gov. Andy Beshear, will get two terms in office. Former Gov. Steve Beshear began his political career in the commonwealth in the 1970s.
Don't get wiped out in the red counties.
Republicans continue to struggle in the suburbs post-Trump. One of the GOP's saving graces has been that the former president juiced turnout in rural and mostly red America like never before. But the Democrats on this list have found that to be successful, all they have to do is avoid massive electoral blowouts. Some have even built stronger ties to rural roots than their GOP opponents.
Take a look at Ohio Issue 1, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to an abortion up until fetal viability outside of the womb. Abortion rights advocates performed considerably better in some of the state's most rural counties than Democratic gubernatorial nominee Nan Whaley did just a year ago. On one hand, it's not too surprising. Issue 1's proponents, like other previous red state movements, couched some of their appeals in broader language that would welcome Republicans. Turnout was also considerably higher in 2022. With that all being said, not getting massively blown out in rural Ohio put Issue 1 in a great position. As Sabato Crystal Ball points out, Issue 1's approval in the greater Cleveland area also helped guarantee its success.
Beshear illustrated a similar path in Kentucky, though Perry Bacon Jr. pointed out, that Beshear also found much in his margin in the suburbs.
If you're explaining, you're losing. Force the GOP to explain.
Democrats have hammered Republicans on abortion in the wake of Roe's reversal. One of the lasting moments of Beshear's campaign will be an ad he ran featuring a survivor of incest. Meanwhile, Republicans have struggled to explain a response. Some, such as Cameron, have had to explain why they abandoned a promise dating back to President Reagan by not supporting exceptions to abortion bans. Cameron softened his position during the campaign, which may have only furthered confusion.
In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his allied state legislature candidates tried to rally around a 15-week abortion ban with traditional exceptions. It probably didn't help that some abortion opponents billed the proposal as just a starting point, sparking concerns that lawmakers could go further if given the chance.
In short, Republicans now clearly struggle to talk about abortion. While Democrats are talking about the topic in ways few in the party have before.
The greatest advantage incumbents hold is being the incumbent, provided you do the basics of governing. In state politics, this especially means responding to disasters well. Floridians have rewarded governors who show they tackle hurricanes. Midwesterners have rallied around leaders who console communities after Tornados. Recent history shows this can still be true. Beshear based some of his message on helping Kentuckians recover from flooding.
—Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) November 8, 2023
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