Voters decided a number of statewide elections and ballot questions on Oct. 7 that gave clues to shifts taking place in American politics.
Gubernatorial races in Kentucky and Mississippi, statehouse contests in Virginia, and ballot measures in Ohio reveal a changing Republican party, the problem with influencing out-of-state races, and the possible emergence of a middle ground in America’s increasingly polarized political landscape.
First, the rapid disappearance of a once-reliable wedge issue for Republicans: abortion.
GOP Abortion Problem
Prior to the overturn of Roe v. Wade, there was perhaps no more dependable issue for Republicans than abortion. Many Republicans were single-issue voters on the issue. And given what seemed like a stable constitutional right to abortion, GOP voters who may have harbored doubts about banning the procedure altogether had no reason or occasion to voice them.
That changed in 2022 when the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision put the matter back in the people’s hands. The ambivalence of many GOP voters became immediately apparent as six state referendums addressing the issue were put to voters that year, including three proposed constitutional amendments to establish a right to the procedure.
Pro-life advocates lost all six, including in red states such as Kentucky and Kansas.
On Oct. 7 the reliably red state of Ohio affirmed adding a right to abortion to the state’s constitution. At the same time, voters in Virginia handed both houses of the state’s legislature to the Democrats, who had used one of the GOP’s favorite wedge issues against it.
Heather Williams, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), the official party committee for state legislatures, said in a statement on election night: “This new era of leadership in Virginia will ensure that abortion remains legal and that Republican’s MAGA agenda is stopped in its tracks. When state-level Democrats run and have the support they need to win, we put ourselves on the path to progress.”
On Nov. 6 she told The Epoch Times that Republicans were underestimating the issue, as they had in the 2022 midterms, and wanted to impose their worldview on voters. “And I think that that’s really, really crystal clear. It’s not going to change. They are not learning lessons,” she added, calling abortion the “losing issue for the GOP.”
Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, a socially conservative think tank based in Arlington, Virginia, agrees that Republicans haven’t figured out a winning strategy on the abortion issue.
Republican voters can no longer be counted on to uniformly support a pro-life agenda.
The Shifting Republican Coalition
Pro-lifers had been used to equating the Republican party with the Reagan coalition, a grouping of economic and governance conservatives who were also social conservatives.
President Donald Trump added another faction to that coalition, populists who share conservatives’ ideology on border security, law enforcement, the Second Amendment, and limited government, but are not necessarily social conservatives.
Despite the fact that the 45th president added three pro-life justices to the Supreme Court, which resulted in the overturn of Roe v. Wade, it seems that many of his supporters do not want an absolute prohibition on the procedure.
Further evidence of social liberalism among Republican voters is the passage of a ballot measure in Ohio legalizing marijuana use.
Increasingly, Republicans also question the Reagan doctrine of maintaining world peace by projecting American military power abroad. This is seen in the increasing skepticism of ongoing support for the war in Ukraine among House Republicans.
These shifts reveal that the traditional pro-life coalition of Catholics and conservative Protestants does not exercise the clout it once did in the GOP.
As well, traditional liberals, who favor abortion rights and the decriminalization of recreational drug use, and oppose American military intervention abroad, have found unlikely allies on the far right.
The party of Reagan has become the party of Trump, and it is not yet clear which issues this new coalition will uniformly support.
The Limits of Influence
If money could truly buy elections, the Mississippi governor’s race might have been won by the Democratic challenger who received some 80 percent of his campaign financing from the Democratic Governor’s Association and other out-of-state donors.
While Brandon Presley, a straight-talking public utility commissioner and cousin of Elvis Presley, mounted a strong challenge, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves won reelection by about 5 percentage points.
Mr. Reeves had run on a record of economic success but perhaps gained even more traction by promising to defend Mississippi against incursion from liberal influencers.
While Mr. Presley had hammered the governor on his alleged involvement in a Welfare scandal that has rocked the state, voters seemed more convinced by Mr. Reeves’s assertion that his challenger was being controlled by wealthy out-of-state donors.
“We all now know what it means in a state like Mississippi when you stand up to the national liberals, when you stand up to Joe Biden,” Mr. Reeves told supporters in a victory speech. “They threw everything they had at Mississippi—$13 million they threw in Mississippi. But guess what, Mississippi did not break. Mississippi did not bend. Mississippi is not for sale.”
“I support Governor Reeves because he is in favor of a lot of Christian values that I value personally as well,” Sommer Gordon of Ridgeland told The Epoch Times. “And he’s a man that is uncompromising when he has a goal.”
Mississippians are fiercely protective of their culture, which they see as unique. It is not clear if other states will react as negatively to the influx of out-of-state campaign contributions.
Room in the Middle
As American politics appears to have become more polarized, the reelection of moderate Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky suggests that there may be room for coalition building in the middle.
Mr. Beshear withstood a challenge from Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron that included an endorsement from President Donald Trump.
Republicans hold a supermajority in both houses of the state’s legislature. Mr. Beshear won reelection in part by recognizing the need to work with like-minded Republicans.
Mr. Beshear has encouraged unity between Democrats and Republicans throughout his campaign. After defeating an unpopular incumbent governor by a narrow margin in 2019 and faced with President Biden’s low approval numbers in a state decisively won by President Trump in 2020, Mr. Beshear recognizes that he needs support from some conservatives to get a second term.
“We run as proud Democrats, but we realize the moment you win, you take that hat off, and you serve every single family in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Everyone,” Mr. Beshear said at a campaign stop in October.
“The fact that most things that families care about aren’t partisan, they’re nonpartisan. And that we shouldn’t be moving a state to the right, or the left, but moving it forward for every family.”
As American political polarization grows, it may be possible other politicians could emerge to seize the middle ground.