Tuesday’s results were undeniably good for Democrats. But several strategists and officials who worked on this year’s successful campaigns said they fear there would now be a sense of complacency about November 2024 because of what happened in November 2023. Their victories, they warned, didn’t tell us much about the political future of the president, even if they turned on the same hot-button issues that might ultimately help him win again.
Dan McCaffery, the Democrat who won Tuesday’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court contest, said the top issue in his race was “100 percent” abortion rights. A distant second was election denialism. Biden, he said, wasn’t a factor whatsoever.
“I never spoke about him, never mentioned him. He never came up on the campaign trail at all,” he said. “The only time he ever came up on the campaign trail, frankly, was there were one or two occasions in the summertime where I had a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses on and people thought I look like Joe Biden. That’s when I was like, ‘C’mon, I’m a lot younger looking.’”
Democrats scored a number of breakthroughs Tuesday, from Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear holding on in a ruby-red state, to abortion rights prevailing in Ohio, to the party racking up victories in Virginia’s legislative races. But in the aftermath, a new set of fault lines has emerged over what to make of it. The most central question is whether it means that Biden’s poor polling in his own reelection campaign is a real sign of weakness or something closer to a mirage.
“Last night was promising. But the Biden numbers, they’re bad at the moment,” said Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), reflecting the internal divides wracking the party. “But what is hopeful about yesterday was when it actually came to the day of voting, people supported Democrats.”
Among Biden’s campaign aides and top allies, Tuesday’s results were hailed as a validation of their theory of 2024. The president’s agenda and policies are popular, they argue, and that is what’s motivating their winning coalition of voters.
“I’ve said it since I endorsed him on the day he announced: Keep fucking underestimating Joe Biden, you will keep being wrong,” said state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Pa.), who sits on the Biden campaign’s national advisory board.
For those aides and allies, the polls and media do not have a firm grasp on what they are actually doing. They note that they are running on abortion rights — the Biden campaign and Democratic National Committee have spent $1 million on ads mentioning abortion this year, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact — and against GOP extremism.
Concerns about complacency, they say, ignore their track record of “expect[ing] this to be a very close race,” as Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez wrote in a memo last week.
They also say they plan to draw more contrasts with former President Donald Trump on a variety of fronts, including his election denialism, and are determined to not allow him to distance himself from the Supreme Court decision — carried out by justices he appointed — that overturned Roe v. Wade.
But elsewhere in the party, there is lingering skepticism. The campaign has made a series of investments that highlight the president in paid advertising rather than hammering home differences with the likely GOP nominee. That has prompted calls for a recalibration.
Several Democrats who were in the trenches for this year’s elections said they made a deliberate decision not to rope in Biden. The president didn’t campaign with Beshear, McCaffery or other Democratic candidates in big races around the country. Some people working on the top contests privately said they didn’t feature Biden in TV ads because he was a liability.
Beshear also distanced himself from the president personally, though he embraced his policies, especially around infrastructure spending. A person who worked on the Beshear campaign, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly, said national leaders and the Beshear team “were all aligned that this race was in the best possible position if it was about Beshear and [Republican nominee Daniel] Cameron and kept it focused on Kentucky — we wanted to keep this a Kentucky race.”
Jodi Quintero, the senior vice president of GMMB, the firm that made TV ads supporting the winning Ohio ballot initiative enshrining abortion rights into the state constitution, said their spots focused on personal testimonials of state residents who had the procedure. None of them featured Biden.
“We were really focused on abortion and framing this as a matter of government interference and freedom,” she said. “We avoided partisanship for the very reason that this issue appeals across the aisle. And so I think that’s a lesson learned.”
Instead of nationalizing these contests, Democrats focused largely, though not exclusively, on one issue. Abortion was the most-mentioned issue in television ads by Democratic candidates and their allies in the Virginia legislative races and Pennsylvania Supreme Court contest, according to AdImpact.
In Kentucky, a socially conservative state, one of the most striking spots from Beshear’s campaign featured a woman talking about being raped by her stepfather at 12 years old and attacking Cameron over his anti-abortion stance. During his victory speech Tuesday, Beshear applauded the woman for telling her story.
The challenge for 2024 comes in connecting abortion policy to specific candidates, said Angela Kuefler, a Democratic pollster who worked on the Ohio ballot initiative.
“His policies, abortion rights — not enough people connect those to Biden. That’s been his perpetual problem,” Kuefler said. “There is no president who has accomplished as much as Joe Biden, but you ask people in a focus group, ‘Name something he’s done,’ and they struggle to name one thing. But that’s what campaigns are for.”
Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster who worked in Ohio this cycle, warned that Democrats should “temper their optimism” because “every single post-Dobbs election where abortion has defied the odds, Donald Trump wasn’t on the ballot in any of them.”
Tommy McDonald, the Democratic media consultant for McCaffery’s campaign, likewise cautioned against learning the wrong lesson from this election: “Pennsylvania still isn’t easy. People should not look at 2022 and 2023 and say this is going to be a cakewalk. I think people might do that.”
Some Republicans did try unsuccessfully to make the race about national figures. Biden was the most-mentioned topic by Republicans and their supporters in the Kentucky governor’s race. An ad by a group opposing the abortion rights initiative in Ohio positively featured Trump saying “in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother — that’s not OK with me.”
The fact that Biden didn’t drag down Democrats on the ballot this November in spite of such commercials is a win in and of itself for the president, Democrats said. Whether it’s enough for 2024 is a larger question.
“I completely understand why [the Biden campaign] is feeling good today,” the Democrat who worked on the Beshear campaign said. “Voters are rejecting Republican extremism around the country, and that’s an encouraging sign [for 2024].”
Ally Mutnick contributed to this report.