A string of special election and ballot measure victories is giving Democrats hope heading into 2024 as the party grapples with concerns over President Biden’s low approval ratings.
The party has clinched significant wins in races across the country over the past year, including with an abortion-related measure in Ohio and a New Hampshire state House race in a district former President Trump won by a slim margin in 2020.
These off-year elections, which often go under the radar but are seen as bellwethers for the current political environment, have renewed optimism within the party’s ranks as Biden looks set for a rematch against Trump.
“I think it’s a reflection of the fact that Democrats have been delivering for the American people and quite frankly, there’s not a constituency in this country who has not benefited from the Democratic way of life when it comes to our priorities, our legislative agenda, up and down the ballot,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “These elections are a true reflection of that and at the end of the day, voters, in particular Black voters, demonstrate their trust when they cast their vote at the ballot box.”
As Democrats brace for a probable rematch between Biden and Trump, worries have grown over Biden’s approval numbers and his age. The president’s current approval rating is 41 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average, while in a recent Monmouth University poll, Biden trails the former president by 1 point among registered voters.
His allies have mostly defended the administration, pointing to everything from Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan to the resilient economy, though unease over the president still lingers among many in the party. Yet Democrats are hopeful the recent special election victories are a positive sign for their prospects going into the 2024 presidential election, especially with abortion still a huge factor on the ballot.
“What that shows you is that, first off, the issue of like abortion isn’t going away,” said Abhi Rohman, the communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “That’s been kind of the centerpiece to all of this. And then secondly, what it shows you is that Democrats have way more strength really across the country than people think. There’s a lot of people who were worried about the top of the ticket and President Biden and his approval numbers, of how the country views him, but Democrats who are running a center-left platform, under the Biden brand, they’re winning all over the country.”
That strength has been on full display in the most recent elections that took place in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
In New Hampshire, Democrat Hal Rafter flipped the GOP seat in the southern part of the state with a 12 percent victory, a significant shift considering Trump’s slim victory there in 2020. In Pennsylvania, Lindsay Powell secured the one-seat Democratic majority in the Pennsylvania House by beating the local Republican Party chairwoman Erin Autenreith. And in Tennessee, community activist Aftyn Behn captured a state House seat in East Nashville, replacing longtime Democratic Rep. Bill Beck, who passed away earlier this year.
“I will say it adds weight to the fact that we are making the right arguments that are resonating with very broad swathes of the American people,” said Democratic strategist Jon Reinish. “I think it certainly bodes well for the battle for the House, I think for certain Senate races, governor’s races, state, legislative, etc. I think this also reflects the Biden team’s thinking also is that this is a very good mobilizing message that creates a lot of urgency with a lot of different people as you head into a presidential race.”
The issue of abortion, which is a lightning rod on both sides of the aisle, has propelled Democrats in special election races and in statewide ballot issues.
In early August, an off-year ballot measure turned into an electoral brawl over abortion. Ohio voters rejected the Republican-controlled state Legislature’s attempt to make it harder to amend the state constitution ahead of a separate ballot measure in November that, if passed, will enshrine abortion rights in the state.
Still, Republicans are cautioning not to read too much into the recent results.
GOP strategist Doug Heye pointed to the 2010 midterms, in which Republicans picked up a historic 63 seats in the House to win back the majority. Republicans were also able to secure six more Senate seats.
“I’d caution Democrats, it’s not always a straight line,” Heye said. “And yes, while you’d rather win a state legislative seat in New Hampshire than lose it, it doesn’t directly translate into what next November’s going to be. Those races often have very local issues that don’t play out necessarily in kind of the national space. And we’ve seen cycles before, where I think this was 2010, where Republicans took a lot of special elections on the chin, lost them, but ultimately had a very, very good year.”
But Democrats feel buoyed by the surprisingly strong showing for the party during last year’s midterms, which came on the heels of a significant victory in Kansas over an abortion-related ballot measure.
In August 2022, Kansans voted to reject a GOP-backed ballot measure that would have given the state Legislature the right to ban abortion. The election was one of the first indications of voter anger over the Supreme Court’s decision to scrap Roe v. Wade and is now generally seen as a harbinger for the Republicans’ poor performance in the midterms several months later.
“A lot of people — they see the national polling and they think that that bodes poorly for Democrats, but again, the biggest indicator of how things are gonna go are basically how elections have done in the past and the past few years,” Rahman said. “Democrats have won basically everything important.”
There’s no arguing that national polling doesn’t look promising for the incumbent president. In a recent NBC News poll, three-quarters of voters expressed concern about Biden’s mental fitness and age. Additionally, fewer than 4 in 10 voters approve his handling of the economy.
Yet even as fears over Biden’s unpopularity dog the party, Democrats are touting their record in this year’s special elections. The DLCC noted in a recent analysis from its campaign arm that the party’s candidates “are overperforming in state legislative special elections this year by an average of over 7 points.”
“I think that voters across the board take very seriously the issue of functioning democracy,” Reinish said. “And as the Republican Party becomes more and more restrictive, more and more paranoid, more and more radicalized, more and more authoritarian really in their impulses, I think that turns off a lot of voters that they need to get and makes voters that normally would not be available to Democrats available to them.”