Opinion: A huge night for Democrats

Editor’s note: Kate Bedingfield served as White House Communications Director in the Biden administration, and was the deputy campaign manager on Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. She also worked in the Obama White House and is a veteran of Democratic Senate and House campaigns over the last 20 years. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN. 

There was a lot of noise — an outright cacophony, in fact — in the days and weeks leading up to Election Day 2023, declaring that Democrats were going to have a bad night. But Tuesday night’s clean sweep of the major races in Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky tells us that Democrats are dialed in on the signal they’re getting from voters. It paints a good roadmap for electoral success as we look ahead to a very noisy 2024 campaign.

Kate Bedingfield - (CNN)
Kate Bedingfield - (CNN)

Successful campaigns are the ones that prioritize the information they get from actual voters and ignore the rest.  Sounds easy, right?  It’s not. One of the hardest things to do in political campaigning is to separate the signal from the noise.

Every campaign sifts through an overwhelming onslaught of information daily — data-based information, anecdotal information, information from those who get paid to opine, even misinformation. Distraction is abundant and the easy sugar high of winning a 24-hour news cycle or a Twitter war (“X war,” if you insist,) is always tempting. There were three big lessons from Tuesday’s election results.

First of all, and probably most importantly, voters resoundingly embraced protecting abortion rights and reject Republican attempts to roll them back. And critically, they’re motivated to show up and vote on the issue. In Ohio, a state Donald Trump won by 8 points in 2020, voters overwhelmingly supported Issue 1, a ballot measure enshrining abortion rights in the state’s constitution.

In Virginia, Gov. Youngkin tried to take the Republicans’ abortion problem head on, claiming that he had articulated a “reasonable” position on the issue that would net Republicans control of both houses of the state legislature. In fact, Virginians didn’t view rolling back existing protections in the state and instituting a new ban as “reasonable,” and Democrats wound up taking the House of Delegates and growing their margin in the State Senate.

And in Kentucky, an ad for Gov. Andy Beshear featured the wrenching first-person abortion story of a rape survivor. The ad was such a significant factor in the race that Beshear thanked the woman in his victory speech.

In addition to telling us that voters resoundingly reject Republican efforts to take this choice away from women across the country, it also tells us that while voters’ pessimism about the economy is absolutely salient and will be a factor in President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign, it isn’t the only issue motivating voters.

For example, in exit polls in Ohio, intensity of feeling from those who voted yes on Issue 1 was 10 points higher than those who voted no. That intensity and voter motivation gives Democrats a great opening to drive the conversation in 2024 to the question of which party will better protect your rights —  a place where Democrats have a significant enthusiasm advantage over Republicans.

A second takeaway from Election Night is that the Biden agenda of bipartisan wins is popular. As I listened to Gov. Beshear’s victory speech last night, I noticed it sounded a lot like the speeches I’ve heard Biden give in countless communities around the country.

Beshear talked about the need to put our differences aside and find common ground where we can and to reject “anger politics.”  He touted the success of the bipartisan infrastructure law in providing money to repair the Brent Spence Bridge that connects Kentucky and Ohio. He touted the expansion of broadband in rural Kentucky – also a result of Biden’s infrastructure law.  Of course, he also talked about protecting abortion rights.

These signature components of the Biden agenda are widely popular with voters and running on them forces Republicans into defending their opposition to things that most people like and want.  Running on the Biden agenda proved a successful strategy for Democrats in all corners of the country in 2022, and we saw it on display again last night.

Finally, the American voters showed yet again just how unpopular Trump and his MAGA extremism is with general election voters. A New York Times/Siena poll released on Sunday and a CNN poll released on Election Day suggested that Biden has some work to do to shore up the coalition of suburban voters, people of color and young voters who resoundingly put him over the top in 2020.

Those polls also showed, however, that Trump — who is likely Biden’s main election opponent in the 2024 contest — is enormously unpopular with general election voters. The former president has both high personal unfavorable numbers and an unpopular agenda.

There was a lot of anticipatory chatter in the weeks before Election Day about the supposed drag Biden would have on Democrats. When the question was actually put to voters last night, it was answered at the ballot box: It was Trump, not Biden, who dragged his candidates down.

Kentucky’s Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron made Trump’s endorsement a key part of his closing message in the week before Election Day, and Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear won re-election in a state that voted for Trump over Biden in the last presidential election by a margin of 26 percentage points. Beshear’s margin of victory in the state was even wider than when he first won his seat in 2019. In the 2020 general election, the 2022 midterms and now again in this 2023 off year balloting, general election voters are telling us, in no uncertain terms, that they don’t want MAGA extremism.

Democrats will win in 2024 by making the election a choice, not just a referendum on Biden’s performance in office. They’ll win re-election to the White House and clinch victories across the country by keeping Republicans squarely on the defensive about the most extreme pieces of their agenda.

One more thing that’s been said before, but is worth repeating: A year is an eternity in politics. Just ask every campaign staffer working 14 hour days, seven days a week, or every voter subjected to a seemingly endless barrage of political advertising in the weeks before an election.

We’ve now had two major elections since Biden took office and since the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Voters have sent consistent and unmistakable signals in both. Democrats just need to keep listening.

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