Opinion: Tuesday’s elections were disappointing for Republicans. That doesn’t mean 2024 will be

Editor’s Note: Lanhee J. Chen, PhD, is a regular contributor to CNN Opinion and the David and Diane Steffy Fellow in American Public Policy Studies at the Hoover Institution. He was a candidate for California State Controller in 2022. Chen has played senior roles in both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations and been an adviser to four presidential campaigns, including as policy director of Romney-Ryan 2012. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

Tuesday night’s elections produced some disappointing outcomes for Republicans who were hoping that they might be able to win unified control of government in Virginia and the governor’s office in Kentucky.

Lanhee J. Chen - Lanhee J. Chen/ECG Studios, LLC
Lanhee J. Chen - Lanhee J. Chen/ECG Studios, LLC

Here are three key takeaways from Election Night 2023.

The power of incumbency

Two sitting governors from different parties — Republican Tate Reeves in Mississippi and Democrat Andy Beshear in Kentucky — cruised to victory in Tuesday night’s elections. Incumbency clearly matters.

Beshear’s example was particularly illustrative. He outran a strong challenge from Republican Daniel Cameron and managed to claim success in several counties that Cameron won when he was elected attorney general in 2019.

Kenton County, Kentucky serves as a good example of the power of incumbency. The third most populous county in Kentucky, it includes a number of communities that are effectively suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio.

You might think of Cameron’s loss as a classic example of the GOP’s suburban slide, but former President Donald Trump actually bested President Joe Biden in Kenton by about 20 percentage points in 2020. In 2019, Republican gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin lost Kenton County by just one percentage point (about 500 votes), while Cameron won the County by a gaping margin of 18 percentage points. Preliminary tallies from Tuesday night show that Beshear expanded on his margin in 2019, beating Cameron by a significantly more comfortable six percentage points. In other counties across the state Tuesday night, Beshear expanded on his narrow margins to turn a half-a-percentage point win in 2019 into reelection by about 5 percentage points.

It helps to be a known commodity, and even more so, in Beshear’s example, to enter an election with strong approval ratings, even from Trump supporters.

Glenn Youngkin for president — just not in 2024

Enough with the “Youngkin for President in 2024” talk, already. The Virginia governor remains an important leader in the GOP and has the potential to be a strong presidential candidate — just not in next year’s election. Even the governor confirmed that he’s “not going anywhere” after Tuesday night’s electoral disappointments.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks during his election night party at a hotel in Chantilly, Virginia, U.S., November 3, 2021. - Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/FILE
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks during his election night party at a hotel in Chantilly, Virginia, U.S., November 3, 2021. - Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/FILE

That’s less because Republicans failed to achieve the outcome they’d hoped for in Virginia Tuesday night, and more because the early state primary nominating and ballot access rules meant that Youngkin would never have been able to successfully parachute in to be Republicans’ last hope of avoiding Trump as their nominee.

He also lacks the infrastructure — whether in early states like Iowa or more populous states like California that vote in early March — needed to win the delegates necessary for the nomination. And, perhaps more importantly, any belief that Youngkin could actually convince former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to step aside and coalesce around his candidacy is lunacy.

If Republicans’ sub-par performance in Virginia Tuesday night serves to do anything, it will hopefully lay to rest the ridiculous notion that Youngkin will be the silver bullet that saves Republicans from nominating Trump in a few months’ time.

They’re called “odd” years for a reason

For those looking to extrapolate Tuesday night’s results to what might happen next November, a piece of advice — don’t. Odd-year elections tend to be, well, odd.

For starters, the electorate in 2023 will likely look different from the electorate that decides what happens in 2024. Voter turnout tends to be considerably higher in presidential election years and independent voters, who tend not to turn out as much during midterm or odd-year elections, tend to play a more considerable role.

Second, voters tend to be hyper-focused on the national environment in presidential years in a way that impacts elections up and down the ballot. Beshear’s ability Tuesday night to escape Biden’s weak approval ratings is a good example of what might be possible in 2023, but much more challenging for down-ballot Democrats in 2024.

Finally, none of Tuesday night’s significant elections took place in the states that will likely decide the 2024 presidential elections, or even control of Congress. The lack of reliable election data from voters in states like Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona means that we should be careful to extrapolate what results in states like Kentucky and Mississippi — or even Ohio, where abortion was directly on the ballot — might mean for results in the swing states that will decide who wins the White House next year.

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