What off-year election wins mean for Democrats and Biden heading into 2024

Democrats breathed a collective sigh of relief as last night’s election results rolled in.

In nearly every one of the states that hold their electoral contests in odd-numbered years — Virginia, Kentucky, and a handful of others — Democrats came up winners by impressive margins.

Voters in Virginia dealt a fatal blow to GOP Governor Glenn Youngkin’s dream of enacting some sort of abortion ban by reversing the Republican takeover of the House of Delegates (the lower half of the bicameral Virginia legislature) and maintaining control of the state Senate, including by electing the first-ever transgender member of that body, Delegate (now Senator-elect) Danica Roem.

Candidates associated with the Democratic Party also took a majority of seats on a school board in Loudon County, which two years earlier was a hotspot in the “parental rights” movement that Mr Youngkin rode to victory in the 2021 gubernatorial election.

In Ohio, voters also stymied Republicans’ hopes of enacting a draconian six-week abortion ban by amending the Buckeye State’s constitution to prohibit the state government from restricting abortion before the point of fetal viability — the general rule that governed abortion rights nationwide before the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision last year.

And in the Kentucky, voters returned incumbent Democratic governor Andy Beshear to his post for a second four-year term, with Mr Beshear riding high on a tide of support for abortion rights against a Trump-endorsed GOP opponent, Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron.

Mr Beshear, the son of former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, galvanised pro-choice Democrats, some Republicans and many independent voters with a campaign that centred reproductive freedom and highlighted Mr Cameron’s support of bans without exceptions for victims of rape or incest.

In one advertisement, a young woman called Hadley Duvall spoke directly to the camera while describing how she was raped and impregnated by her stepfather at age 12.

She called out Mr Cameron by name and opined that “anyone who believes there should be no exceptions for rape and incest could never understand what it’s like to stand in my shoes”.

The election results, largely favourable to Democrats with the exception of Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves’ re-election victory over Democratic challenger Brandon Presley, came just days after the political world was shocked by a series of polls showing a bleak picture for the expected 2024 presidential contest.

In one survey from the New York Times and Sienna College, President Joe Biden was shown to trail his likely 2024 opponent — former president Donald Trump — by significant margins in almost every key battleground, even those he won in 2020.

Of the swing states where Mr Biden triumphed in his last campaign — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — only the Badger State provided a favourable response for the 46th president.

The dismal showing in opinion polls a full year out from next year’s general election had led many commentators to predict that Mr Beshear would be toast and prognosticate that Mr Youngkin’s Virginia GOP would gain a coveted “trifecta” that would let him enact the abortion ban that would’ve catapulted him to star status among Republican governors and emboldened some donors and activists who’ve suggested that he throw his hat into the ring as a late challenger to Mr Trump.

They’d also provided grist for the mill of endless commentary from pundits who say Mr Biden should stand down in favour of some unnamed saviour who could, in their telling, easily vanquish the quadruply indicted Mr Trump, who is set to be tried on four sets of criminal charges across four jurisdictions next year.

It’s true that Mr Biden remains an unpopular figure among the general electorate. But that’s not much of a change. He was never exactly a popular one, save for a stretch in the late Obama years when a boozy, womanising caricature of him popularised by The Onion helped him acquire a brand as happy-go-lucky “Uncle Joe”.

Yet Tuesday’s solid showing for Democrats indicates that there’s a strong possibility that despite the low approval ratings, Mr Biden will rise in a head-to-head rematch with Mr Trump.

When voters are confronted with a choice of whether to embrace the ex-president’s compatriots against Democratic standard-bearers, they are, by and large, choosing Democrats.

And even though Mr Biden’s approval ratings remain low in most opinion polls, those polls exist in a hypothetical world where he’s not running against the man he defeated three years ago.

Mr Trump has never left the political scene, but he hasn’t been given the spotlight he’ll get when he formally becomes the GOP nominee again.

When he does, all the unpopular GOP positions will be associated with him — especially support for the abortion bans he enabled with his trio of Supreme Court picks.

Mr Biden still has a campaign to run, but Tuesday’s results are an indicator that even if voters may not like him much, they seem to like what his party stands for way more than the alternative.