Democrats rack up wins in off-year elections
Voters back pro-abortion candidates and causes
With few exceptions, Democratic candidates won a broad sweep on election night 2023. In many states, the election served as a referendum on abortion, with most Democrats campaigning on either preserving or passing pro-abortion policies. While turnout is typically low in off-year elections, the victories boost party momentum going into 2024, and they set up key players to watch.
Attorney General Daniel Cameron effectively tied with Andy Beshear in the polls less than a week before Election Day, but a last-minute sprint failed to put him ahead. Beshear won with roughly 53 percent of the vote to Cameron’s 47.
Beshear, 45, made national news when he won as a Democrat in a majority Republican state in 2019 by only 5,000 votes. Former President Donald Trump won the state’s electoral votes in 2016 and 2020. Pandemic response and major flooding in 2022 have dominated Beshear’s administration. One of the country’s more popular governors, he enjoys a 60 percent approval rate. Beshear often pitched himself as being above partisan politics. Throughout his campaign, he touted Kentucky’s economic health and a record-low unemployment level reached last year. Beshear vetoed a bill in 2022 that would have protected students from playing on the same sports teams as children of the opposite sex. At the time, he said, “My faith teaches me that all children are the children of God. … Improving access to gender-affirming care is an important means of improving health outcomes for the transgender population.”
On election night, Beshear told his supporters his victory demonstrated, “a choice not to move to the right or to the left but forward.”
While Michigan did not have any statewide races open, two key mayoral elections affected a slim Democratic majority in the state House on Tuesday. State Rep. Kevin Coleman won the mayorship of Westland with 59 percent of the vote. Both he and Rep. Lori Stone are giving up their seats in the state legislature, which ties Republicans and Democrats 54-54 until special elections are held. Stone won her election for mayor of Warren with 53 percent of the vote, making her the first woman to lead the state’s third-largest city.
Oakland, Ingham, and Kalamazoo County voted to implement ranked choice voting in local elections. The method allows voters to rank the options on their ballot, giving more weight to a voter’s second and third-place choices. Proponents of ranked choice voting claim it gives voters more flexibility and power beyond the binary choice presented in most elections. Its detractors claim the system is overly complex and subject to manipulation. While the three counties in Michigan represent just a small change to how the state conducts elections overall, they evidence a growing trend seen in Alaska, Nevada, and 50 other cities across the country.
Ohio’s Issue 1 passed with 55.1 percent support on Tuesday night, officially adding a constitutional right to abortion. The amendment declares that “every individual has a right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions,” including abortion. It likely spells doom for Ohio’s heartbeat abortion law, which is currently on hold. The text appears to allow restrictions on later abortions and says nothing about removing the state’s existing parental consent requirements, but pro-lifers fear it will create a platform for the pro-abortion movement to roll back all protections for babies in the state eventually.
Also on Tuesday, Ohio became the 24th state to legalize recreational marijuana, with 56.4 percent of voters approving Issue 2. When it takes effect in 30 days, adults 21 and older can possess and use up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana or grow six plants for recreational purposes. The legislature could adjust the initiative because it’s not a constitutional amendment.
“Marijuana is no longer a controversial issue,” said Tom Haren, spokesperson for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. “Ohioans are being extremely clear on the future they want for our state: adult-use marijuana legal and regulated.”
Users will have to pay a 10 percent additional tax, and part of which is supposed to fund an equity and jobs program aimed at changing drug penalties in the state. The initiative includes sentencing, bail and parole reform, record-sealing, and expungement. Unlike similar initiatives passed by other states, this one doesn’t clear the criminal record for previous marijuana-related offenses. Proponents say the law will end the black market for marijuana in Ohio and preserve tax revenue that goes to out-of-state cannabis purchases. The initiative also creates a “Division of Cannabis Control” within the state’s Commerce Department.
Democratic candidate Dan McCaffery, 59, successfully expanded his party’s majority on the state Supreme Court. The former Superior Court judge and Philadelphia prosecutor won nearly 54 percent of the vote. While the state does not have any abortion cases pending, McCaffery’s campaign focused heavily on the issue. Planned Parenthood Votes mobilized support for him, and he promised to uphold the state’s abortion permissions. He has said that “those particular issues are best decided between a woman, her conscience, and her doctor.”
Spending in the high-stakes judicial race exceeded $16.5 million in ads alone. The state Supreme Court is often called on to adjudicate disagreements between the divided state legislature and the governor’s mansion. The outcome did not change the Democratic majority on the bench. McCaffery will fill a vacancy left by the death of Chief Justice Max Baer last year.
Democrats won back control of both chambers of the General Assembly, dashing Republicans’ hopes of gaining a trifecta this year. Democrats maintained a slim margin of control over the state Senate and regained seats in the House of Delegates on Election Night. Seven seats, six in the House and one in the Senate, had been vacant and so had no incumbent to defeat. The changes will likely thwart Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s legislative goals in the coming year. He previously said that if Republicans gained a trifecta in the state, he would try to pass a pro-life bill that would protect unborn babies from abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
—Clara York assisted with reporting.
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