Remarkably… Although the US opinion polls continue to track the declining popularity of Joe Biden, the Democrats still scored important victories this week in a variety of state and municipal elections and in a crucial referendum held in Ohio, on abortion rights. Some of the key victories were in states that Donald Trump won by wide margins in 2020.
While not the only factor, these results indicate that the abortion issue will continue to provide the Democrats with their best chance of holding onto the White House in 12 months’ time. Ohio voted for Trump by a large margin in the 2020 presidential election. Yet this week and by a clear majority, Ohio voters passed an amendment to the Ohio state constitution enshrining safeguards to reproductive rights, including the right to abortion. This outcome – which will take effect after 30 days – will eventually overturn the so-called ‘heartbeat’ legislation that forbids abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, normally six weeks into a pregnancy.
Ohio voters rejected that approach, despite the best efforts of the Republican Party to muddy the waters and rig the outcome. For example: A small group of Republican legislators led by the Ohio secretary of state (also a Republican) took it on themselves to write the wording of the ballot proposal.
Moreover, the Republicans had lost a previous public vote in August aimed at blocking or limiting the ability of ordinary voters to amend the state constitution, not only with respect to the enshrining of abortion rights, but regarding a variety of other progressive measures. The Ohio Republicans also tried to suppress voter turnout (a) by insisting on holding the initial vote at the height of the summer heatwaves and (b) by falsely assuring voters that the August measure would ease restrictions on amending the constitution when in fact it would have sharply narrowed the scope of this week’s referendum. The Ohio courts also rejected attempts to increase the number of signatures required to get a measure onto the ballot.
Women voters were not fooled by the campaign of deceit. The Republicans lost in August, lost in court and lost in this week’s referendum. (Besides the abortion measure, voters also chose in the same referendum to make Ohio the 21st US state to legalise the recreational use of marijuana for anyone aged 21 or over.)
Likewise in Virginia, voters this week rejected a ban on abortion after 15 weeks that was being pushed by Republican governor and presidential hopeful Glenn Youngkin, and in the process voters flipped the legislature to a Democratic majority. For obvious reasons, Biden was kept at arms distance from all of these Democratic campaigns.
The abortion landscape
Ohio is now the seventh US state to enshrine reproductive rights in the state constitution, a telling response to the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v Wade, and in the face of Republican efforts nationwide to severely restrict and/or abolish the legal access to abortion.
Overall, abortion rights are currently protected (to varying degrees) by state laws in 21 states and the District of Columbia, and are at risk of being severely limited (or prohibited entirely) in 26 states and three US territories. Next year, abortion is promising to become a key factor in electorally significant states like Florida and Arizona.
In the run-up to this week’s vote in Ohio, the issues at stake had been highlighted by the 2022 case of a 10 year girl who had been raped by a 27 year old man, and who was then forced (by Republican-led abortion bans) to travel to Indiana to obtain an abortion.
Footnote: But isn’t Indiana Mike Pence’s home state? Not surprisingly therefore, the Indiana doctor who performed the abortion on the 10 year old rape victim was reprimanded and fined by Indiana’s Medical Licensing Board.
Incredible, really. Having fined and publicly rebuked the doctor for saving the girl from the life-long trauma of having to carry her rapists’ child to term, the Indiana Board decided – in their infinite mercy – not to revoke the doctor’s licence to practise medicine at all. That’s what passes for moderation on abortion these days in some parts of the United States.
Winning the heartland
The other dramatic Democratic victory this week came in the governor’s race in the deeply conservative state of Kentucky. The sitting Democratic governor Andy Beshear won a tough fight for re-election against his well-funded Republican challenger, Daniel Cameron.
This result demonstrated a method by which Democrats can still win elections in the conservative heartland. To do so, the centre-left has to focus, as Beshear brilliantly did, on classic issues (jobs, wages and healthcare) and on using the state’s tax revenues to help future-proof Kentucky against extreme weather events linked to climate change.
Beshear, an engaging communicator, ran aggressively and unashamedly on his track record in office, and he managed to convince even a significant number of rural conservatives that he was in it for them as well. He also openly supported access to abortion.(Abortion is healthcare.) As this powerful advertisement shows, Beshear encouraged women to speak directly to voters about what was/is at stake:
A narrow miss in Old Miss
In the governor’s race in ultra-conservative Mississippi, the Democratic challenger Brandon Presley (a second cousin of Elvis) came very close (losing by only 40,000 votes among 800,000 votes cast) to unseating the well-funded Republican incumbent.
Low turnout proved to be the key factor in Presley’s loss. On that point, the narrow Republican victory was tarnished by what – whether by accident or intent – amounted to voter suppression. Ballots ran out suspiciously early in nine precincts within the densely populated Democratic stronghold of Hinds County, where – according to 2020 US census figures – 69% of the population are black. This week, a court hastily ordered voting centres to stay open for an extra hour, to try to compensate for the missing ballots.
Overall, the Democrats can take heart that they might still win next year despite Joe Biden, providing they can focus voters less on Biden’s age and more on his genuine achievements on bread and butter issues. It looks like an uphill battle, though. In polls released a week ago, Trump was leading Biden in several swing states.
As mentioned though, the battle for reproductive rights and abortion access will work strongly in favour of the Democrats. So much so that Donald Trump has been consistently softening his position on abortion, calling abortion “a trap” for the Republican Party. By doing so, Trump has been infuriating anti-abortion extremists and evangelicals, particularly by his coming out against a nation-wide federal ban on abortion. Trump has also criticised the harsh limits on abortion access enacted in Florida by his main Republican rival, Florida governor Ron De Santis.
Trump seems unlikely to lose many evangelicals by taking this more moderate stance. After all, he is still the guy who stacked the Supreme Court and thereby got Roe v Wade overturned. Looking to 2024, his soft-line approach on abortion has a different target:
Brian Seitchik, a Republican strategist and Trump campaign alumnus, argued that Trump is clearly trying to target college-educated suburban women who voted for him in 2016 but not in 2020..
…GOP strategists and activists think Trump has essentially closed the book on the Republican primary and is focused on the general election. But there’s an open question whether the former president’s attempts to paint himself as an abortion moderate will gain more voters than it alienates.
Hipkins forever, for now
Helen Clark, then Phil Goff. Jacinda Ardern, then Chris Hipkins. These have not been happy transitions. This week, Hipkins’ caucus colleagues voted to keep him on as Labour leader. They did so before conducting any review into why Labour’s election campaign failed so miserably.
It gets worse. To the sound of one hand clapping, Hipkins revealed that a capital gains tax and a wealth tax might be on the Labour agenda in future, now that the policy whiteboard has been “wiped clean” by the election defeat.
Hmm. It would be understandable if some centre-left voters felt pretty miffed at hearing about this sudden outbreak of tolerance. In effect, the Labour leadership team had ruled out passing a capital gains tax and a wealth tax when it could have done so, but is now toying with those ideas when it can’t.
Readers of Alice Through the Looking Glass will know the feeling well. To paraphrase the White Queen’s advice to Alice, it seems that Labour is willing to embrace being a radically progressive government either tomorrow or yesterday, but never today.
Politics, however, is not about being open only to those options that might help you to garner a few extra votes closer to polling day in 2026, when Labour will have another opportunity to disappoint its supporters all over again. Nor is just about counter-punching at the political agenda being pursued by the other crowd. Arguably, it is about stating clearly what you stand for and advocating for policy alternatives that reflect the values that guide you, day in, year out.
As yet though, New Zealanders still have precious little idea of what Chris Hipkins would regard as his non-negotiable bottom lines, the policies that he would be willing to die in a ditch to protect. Once elevated to being Prime Minister, Hipkins was engaged in trimming (or dumping) the controversial items already on Labour’s plate of policies.
One rare innovation – taking GST off fruit and vegetables always did look more like a political calculation than a heartfelt response to the cost of living crisis. By chance on Wednesday, Labour was presented with a good opportunity to show its new, true colours. Blessedly, the economic slowdown this year has not prevented the BNZ from posting $1.51 billion in annual profits.
If Labour did want to show its change of heart, couldn’t the newly liberated Labour caucus have come out and called for a windfall tax on these massive profits being sent offshore by the BNZ, and by the other Australian-owned banks?
Instead, Labour appears to have put that option up on the whiteboard for consideration sometime in 2026. Depending on how the wind is blowing by then.