Republicans nationwide are picking up the pieces after a disappointing election night. A much vaunted, Glenn Youngkin-fronted effort to take full control of the Virginia General Assembly failed devastatingly, as the Democrats held onto the State Senate and flipped the House of Delegates. In Kentucky, incumbent Governor Andy Beshear held off a challenge from Attorney General Daniel Cameron. And in Ohio, voters opted to enshrine the right to an abortion and legalize marijuana, both by a margin of thirteen percentage points.
Virginia Republicans pulled off a shock upset in 2021 when they took the House of Delegates and the governor’s mansion. The lanky quarterzip-wearing Carlyle Group executive picked key wedge issues that turned moderate heads. A couple took advantage of what voters were thinking about post-Covid: what was being taught in schools and how students behaved as a result.
A fraught story involving the sexual assault of a girl in the ladies bathroom by her “gender-fluid” born-male partner, and the resulting school board meeting chaos and cover-ups, proved well timed for Youngkin: he was able to depict the Democrats as the party of violating women-only spaces and telling white kids they were innately flawed. His bumbling opponent Terry McAuliffe dug himself deeper with his seemingly parent-snubbing response in their debate: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Swing voters were swung. Youngkin — and normal — won.
The national noise about Tuesday’s results is that, once again, the fall of Roe v. Wade, and consequent relocalizing of the abortion issue, mobilized Democrats and let them reframe the debate by painting Republicans as pro-life extremists. This, plus what Senator Mitch McConnell referred to as “candidate quality” problems, cost the Republicans a year ago at the midterms. In Virginia, party officials adeptly managed to sidestep the kookier fringe candidates — but the Democrats capitalized on Youngkin’s expressed support for a fifteen-week abortion ban and portrayed it as an “extreme” position, despite the fact that fifteen weeks is consistent with several other Western nations and that rarely if ever did their candidates opt to articulate what rules around abortion they would prefer.
Before Roe fell, the pro-choice side was more significantly abnormal on the abortion issue, in a way that swing voters would have found offputting — “shouting” your abortion, for example, can come across as a distasteful way to talk about a gruesome medical procedure. But in the months since, a more common-sense argument has come to define the pro-choice movement — because protecting abortion became a more pressing priority, and so the weirdos were sidelined.
Among Republicans meanwhile, the “moderate” positions on abortion and birth control were articulated by Nancy Mace, of recent “self-immolation to oust Kevin McCarthy” fame… and not many others. Senator Lindsey Graham, consistent with Youngkin, called for a nationwide fifteen-week ban. Again, perspective is important here: “abortion legal up to fifteen weeks” is normal in, say, France or Spain. But “senator calling for national abortion ban” is an affront to the moderates and what they consider “normal.”
To further reinforce that normal wins elections, consider two of the Democratic candidates who didn’t win their Virginia races. First, Jeremy Rodden, a big backer of Chesapeake’s “After School Satan Club,” which my colleague Amber Athey has written about extensively, and is hardly the most appealing way to advertise your atheism to voters. And second, Susanna Gibson, who narrowly lost in Goochland and is now free to set politics aside and return to the far more dignified professions of nursing and camgirling. Demonology and Chaturbate might be an outré way to spend a night on the internet — they aren’t what swing voters want on the ballot, yet.
The election is now less than a year away — and both parties have their work cut out to offer the decisive voters a convincing “we’re the most normal” case. Ensuring “candidate quality” and avoiding scandal at the primary is the first hurdle. The Biden administration has been mostly effective at reigning in or sidelining its crazier colleagues — the odd fire alarm pull excepted. But public perception of Israel’s war on Hamas could offer Republicans an opening to put the likes of Rashida Tlaib front and center. Other openings will come too, whether courtesy of culture wars or actual wars. Is a Republican Party helmed by Ronna Romney McDaniel, Mike Johnson and, as seems likely, Donald Trump, capable of convincing the voters that matter of its normalcy? We shall see.