Election 2023: harsh lessons for Republicans, with some silver linings

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks with reporters after touring a Loudoun County elections facility at the County Office of Elections, in Leesburg, Va., Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. Youngkin inspected ballot scanning machines undergoing logic and accuracy testing. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The Briefing, Vol. XI, Issue 45

This week:

  • Election 2023 is a Republican failure in Virginia, albeit a narrow one
  • Biden’s unpopularity is not enough to sustain the GOP
  • Manchin bails out as Election 2024 begins


There is no way to sugarcoat it — Republicans underperformed expectations in last week’s off-year election. The degree to which this bodes poorly for their prospects in 2024 is probably overstated — it always is in every even-numbered year, as it was when Republicans had a relatively good showing in 2021. However, Republicans have some serious structural problems to reckon with before next November.

As expected, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves (R) was re-elected, and he did it without even needing a runoff. Also as expected, Gov. Andy Beshear (D) won re-election in Kentucky. This was not surprising, but still disappointing for the GOP and its formerly up-and-coming star, Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R). 

In Virginia’s legislative elections, Republicans were not exactly wiped out, but they did lose what control they had. They certainly failed to meet expectations. They needed to gain two state Senate seats to take control of the upper body, but they gained only one. In the state House, they were defending a tenuous 52-48 majority, but ended up on the losing end of a 51-49 split when the dust cleared.

Even the Democratic nominee for state representative who had livestreamed weird fetish pornography online for paying customers came within a thousand votes of victory. This result alone, although a loss for Democrats, is a sign of the extent to which the “Vote Blue, No Matter Who” movement has infected some quarters of the country. 

For now, the Republican brand is clearly very weak. It is failing to land with younger voters and others who have been more persuadable in the past. Another disappointment is that this result came in spite of Joe Biden’s overwhelming unpopularity as a president. According to Gallup, his approval rating at this point in his presidency is worse than any president since Carter.

Silver linings: However, the result in Virginia still shows that things are not entirely hopeless. Working with a Democrat-drawn map, Republicans still essentiallly managed to break even in Virginia (supposedly a hopeless blue state) while pushing for a ban on second- and third-trimester abortions and largely sticking to their guns on most important issues such as gun control and taxes. 

Loudoun County, a blue county in the Washington D.C. area, had became famous for its transgender school controversies. Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj (D) was targeted for leniency toward criminals and for her vicious prosecution of a father whose daughter had been raped because of the county’s liberal transgender school bathroom policies. Biberaj lost re-election. Voters also defeated the only two incumbent schoolboard members who ran for re-election, although they kept a liberal majority on the board, which had instigated a coverup of a rape and a second sexual assault by a male student wearing a skirt.

Ohio-abortion: The bitterest result for conservatives probably came in Ohio, where the abortion industry successfully convinced voters to enshrine a right to abortion (and perhaps even the abolition of parental rights over it, once the courts interpret it) in their state constitution. The result illustrates how far the pro-life movement has to go in order to convince voters in the post-Roe era.

There is no question that the electoral landscape has changed with the Dobbs decision. Prior to this, Republicans enjoyed a small but consistent net advantage by being pro-life. Now, the issue appears to cut slightly against them, at least when it is isolated on ballots in states like Ohio and Kansas before it.

The silver lining is that, in the end, the 13-point margin by which Issue One won could have been much worse. Over 43 percent in what is usually a pretty swingy state (or could be again) voted to defend Ohio’s relatively stringent abortion ban. That isn’t great, but it is not exactly the blowout that the abortion industry had hoped for. They won, but they failed to make an example of what happens when you take a principled pro-life position. 

With time and work, it may be possible in the future to use a ballot issue to restore the state’s power to limit abortions again and even to work, in time, toward abolition. 

The long-term story of Ohio’s abortion law teaches a different lesson that is often lost on conservatives. It illustrates the importance of accepting incremental change where necessary and of remaining in tune with each state’s electorate. 

Politicians’ bravery on this issue is laudable in one sense. If all it meant was that Republicans would lose more elections, it might be completely worth it to pass the most stringent laws available. But this becomes impractical if it results in Democrats seizing complete power just months later and reversing everything, legalizing abortion up until the moment a child goes to college — or, as in this case, enshrining such a right in their state constitution, which even a solidly Republican legislature like Ohio’s cannot do much about.

This is a feature of politics in any republic. Both fortitude and prudence have important roles to play. 

As is by now obvious, the Dobbs decision was only the first step for the pro-life movement, not its end goal. If you are a committed pro-lifer, then you understand that some states should ban abortion right away, as the voters there can sustain the result. Others, however, still have more convincing to do before they can get there. The question is where to draw the line, without sacrificing the principle that the ultimate goal is abolition. 

Virginia Republicans, despite their narrow loss, could be treated as a case study for having pressed the limits of what their state’s electorate would accept. This is probably the best approach. It will not always result in victory, but it is doubtful that they would have done better by raising the white flag on this issue and losing a key party constituency. 

Senate 2024

West Virginia: Not long ago, West Virginia was solidly Democratic. West Virginians only started voting consistently Republican for president in 2000. They kept re-electing two unbeatable Democratic senators and had a lock on the state’s U.S. House seats right up until 2010. In the time since, the voters have finally given up on Democrats altogether. 

It was only in 2014 that the GOP seized control of the state legislature, at which point a cascade of party-switches followed. Even after Democrats won the governor’s mansion in 2016, they lost it again when their candidate, Gov. Jim Justice (D), became a Republican. It was only in 2020 that Republicans finally seized control of all six statewide constitutional offices.

And the situation has only become more dire for the Democrats since. After the 2022 election, which in most of America was a disappointment for the GOP, only 14 out of West Virginia’s 134 elected state legislators and senators were Democrats. For context, that’s down from 33 just before the 2022 election and 77 before the 2014 election.

It is in this context that Sen. Joe Manchin (D) finally announced his decision last week. It was exactly what we expected. Having read the writing on the wall, he will be retiring at the end of his current term. He still has not ruled out a third-party presidential run. Manchin, a former governor of the state, could almost be called the last Democrat standing, and he certainly is the last Democrat electable statewide

There is no such thing as an absolute certainty in politics, but this is about as close as it gets: Republicans will pick up this U.S. Senate seat in 2024. There is no Democrat left in the state, aside from Manchin, who could hold it at this point, and probably Manchin wouldn’t have been able to hold it, either, especially with a presidential race at the top of the ballot.

All that needs deciding now is the Republican primary between Justice, an extremely popular governor and the favorite, and conservative U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney (R), who formerly represented a district in Maryland’s state Senate and served as state party chairman there before moving his family to the Mountain State. Mooney has the support of the conservative Club for Growth, but he also has a long uphill climb, if the available polling is any indication

With Manchin out of the race, it is likely that either Republican will win easily if nominated.