Takeaways from US elections: Democrats win in several states on abortion rights

President Joe Biden and Donald Trump were not on the ballot this time, and how Americans view them will be a huge factor in shaping next year's race

Voters fill out their ballots on Election Day in Columbus, Ohio. AFP
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Democrats had plenty of good news to celebrate in Tuesday’s off-year elections and now have more evidence that they can win races centred on the national debate over abortion.

An unpopular President Joe Biden, however, was not on the ballot.

Abortion rights supporters won an Ohio ballot measure and the Democratic governor of conservative Kentucky held on to his office by campaigning on reproductive rights and painting his opponent as an extremist.

A Democrat won an open seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after campaigning on his pledge to uphold abortion rights. And Democrats took full control of the Virginia statehouse, blocking Republicans from being able to pass new abortion restrictions and delivering a defeat to Governor Glenn Youngkin.

The victories will not be enough to make Democrats feel secure heading into next year’s presidential election. The off-year elections have major implications in all of those states and provide a snapshot of American politics heading into 2024.

But two big names – Mr Biden and Donald Trump – were not on the ballot this time. How Americans view them will be a huge factor in shaping next year's race.

Here are some key results from Tuesday’s vote.

Good night for Democrats but maybe not for 2024

It was a good night for Democrats following a series of wins in special elections and comes after a stronger performance in last year's midterms, which are usually crushing for the party in power in Washington.

But none of the races were an up-or-down decision on the incumbent president, Mr Biden, who is trailing Mr Trump in opinion polls.

Democrats have performed well in recent special elections and did better than expected in 2022. It increasingly seems like the party is starting from a position of strength.

However it is not clear that is also true for the 80-year-old President, who has faced widespread criticism about his job performance and whether he is too old to serve a second term.

Abortion issue helping Democrats

Democrats notched two early wins on Tuesday night in Kentucky and Ohio, states that voted for Mr Trump in 2020. In both states, abortion was the main campaign issue.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear was re-elected in a state that Mr Trump had won by 26 percentage points. Mr Beshear had criticised the abortion views of his Republican challenger, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, in debates and television advertisements.

In Ohio, a ballot measure preserving abortion rights passed in a state that Mr Trump won by 8 percentage points in 2020. Republicans had already tried to derail the measure by calling an unusual August referendum to make it harder to pass ballot measures, an initiative that was roundly rejected by Ohio voters.

Also on Tuesday, Dan McCaffery won an open seat on Pennsylvania's Supreme Court after positioning himself as a defender of abortion rights. And in Virginia, Democrats held the state senate and flipped control of the Virginia House of Delegates from the Republicans.

The outcomes suggest a transformed political landscape since a conservative majority of the US Supreme Court overturned a federal right to an abortion last year. Abortion rights measures have passed in a plethora of states while some Republican-run states have instituted new bans on the procedure.

Glenn Youngkin falls short

Glenn Youngkin burst on the political scene in 2021, winning an upset victory to become the Republican governor of Virginia, a state Mr Biden won handily the previous year.

Putting a moderate, suburban dad spin on modern Republicanism, Mr Youngkin generated buzz that he could even make a late, surprise entry into the Republican presidential primary after this month’s elections.

Instead, Mr Youngkin said he would focus on the 2023 legislative elections and winning full Republican control over Virginia government. Things did not go the way he hoped.

Yusef Salaam

Exonerated “Central Park Five” member Yusef Salaam won a seat on the New York City Council, completing a stunning reversal of fortune decades after he was wrongly imprisoned in an infamous rape case.

Mr Salaam, a Democrat, will represent a central Harlem district on the City Council, having run unopposed for the seat in one of many local elections held across New York state Tuesday. He won his primary election in a landslide.

The victory comes more than two decades after DNA evidence was used to overturn the convictions of Mr Salaam and four other black and Latino men in the 1989 rape and beating of a white jogger in Central Park. Mr Salaam was arrested at age 15 and imprisoned for almost seven years.

“For me, this means that we can really become our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” Mr Salaam said in an interview before the election.

Updated: November 08, 2023, 4:29 PM