What the 2023 election means for North Carolina

November 13, 2023


  • Democrats had a very strong election cycle this year
  • Abortion and reproductive freedom was a central issue for most voters
  • Republicans have few options to pivot away


Last week, important elections were held all across the country, and our state, that give potent clues about the voters’ mood, just a year out from the 2024 election. “Off-year” elections like this one, especially prior to a Presidential election the following year, are often studied closely for clues they hold about the prevailing political climate. While no single election datapoint should be over-interpreted, there are some clear lessons that emerged from all of the multiple elections held last week – and they all had a clear partisan tilt.

In elections across Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and right here in North Carolina, voters swung hard towards Democrats, and Democratic-aligned policies. The results defied many Democrats’ own anxieties stemming from poor approval ratings for President Joe Biden and voters’ feelings about the economy. Across multiple states, and different elections with their own dynamics, there was a consistent theme of voters rejecting Republican candidates, and the issues they vocally supported, in ways that bode ill for the party’s fate in 2024.

Blue suburbs swing Virginia

Voters in Virginia, led prominently by its burgeoning suburbs, threw Republicans out of power in the Commonwealth’s much-watched legislative elections last week. They gave back to Democrats full control of the State House and Senate, effectively ending Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin’s legislative agenda. Youngkin had been touted by some nervous GOP donors as a potential primary challenger to Donald Trump (despite polling at effectively 0% support), and that trial balloon is now safely deflated. Youngkin had campaigned vocally with Republican legislative candidates for a 15-week abortion ban, in what Youngkin himself called a “test case” of voter support – a prediction that, it seems, came true.

Though President Biden’s approval rating is negative by double digits in the Commonwealth and 73% of Virginia voters said the nation is on the “wrong track” (credit: Cardinal News), this did not seem to sway their choices. In the end, much of the result boiled down to Virginia’s legislative maps themselves, which are (demonstrably) highly competitive. Virginia’s legislative maps were redrawn by a non-partisan process in 2021, after Democrats established an independent redistricting reform commission.

Voters reject abortion extremism

In thunderclap election results in both Kentucky and Ohio, voters in both solidly red states loudly rejected anti-abortion extremism.

In Kentucky, where Trump won by 26 points, Democratic Governor Andy Beshear won a second term over his Republican challenger, Attorney General Daniel Cameron. Most observers pointed to Cameron’s embrace of a complete, no-exceptions ban on abortion if elected as a major explanation.

In Ohio, the Issue 1 ballot initiative succeeded by a wide margin, officially codifying abortion rights Ohio’s state constitution, as well as rights to contraception and fertility care. The Issue 1 campaign overcame a concerted effort by state and national Republican officials to defeat it, including a bizarre attempt to schedule a separate, off-cycle August referendum to make the November referendum’s passage less likely. Ohio voters also approved, by a similarly wide margin, legalizing marijuana.

Ohio Republicans have already declared their plans to reject the voters’ will on Issue 1 and continue fighting for an abortion ban.

In each of these “red” states, a sizable chunk of conservative, Republican base voters broke from the party to support Democratic challengers singularly over the GOP’s embrace of abortion bans.

Local results

Here in North Carolina, Democrats once again had a very good night, and not just in traditional Democratic strongholds. Even in many places where the party hasn’t competed strongly in recent years, Democrats won a number of surprising races against Republican incumbents.

It’s always important not to over-interpret the results of elections, even the consistent results of multiple and widespread ones, a year before another general election. Voters are famously fickle, and political conditions change dramatically and quickly. Yet hard electoral results like these cannot be dismissed quickly, either. They are also more clearly indicative of voters’ moods than polls.

Looking ahead

In another 12 months, when Americans once again head to the polls, they are almost certain to face a choice between re-electing President Biden or changing course for Donald Trump. Here in North Carolina, they will also face an election for Governor that is all but certain to feature Lt. Governor Mark Robinson. The Trump/Robinson Republican ticket will offer the sharpest contrast to their Democratic opponents (Biden and either Josh Stein or Mike Morgan) that North Carolina has seen in years.

It will also feature a central issue: Mark Robinson’s vocal and repeated promise to completely ban abortion if elected.

Abortion, and reproductive freedom broadly, will clearly not be the only issue in the North Carolina gubernatorial election. But it will certainly play a major role. As North Carolina’s Republican leaders openly admitted, this year’s deeply unpopular 12-week abortion ban was only the beginning.

This year’s election results may have them reconsidering the political wisdom of that decision.

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