Chuck Todd: Biden and abortion are on the ballot. The question is which matters more.

In this polarized, closely divided political environment, elections are the only marker we have to really find out what information voters are receiving and how they’re using it to make decisions.

Two things have driven our politics more than anything since Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016: the Trump takeover of the GOP and abortion. Every election night — no matter what type of contest or time of year — has given us some indication about what voters think on those two topics. And we’re a week out from a handful of big state races that will give us a hint of what’s to come in our politics ahead of the 2024 election.

The elections on tap this year include not only gubernatorial races but others that will give us a sense of the salience of the abortion issue, such as the battle for control of the Virginia Legislature and the Ohio ballot measure that, if passed, would protect abortion access in the state constitution.

That’s the most important lesson I expect to learn from voters next Tuesday: just how motivating the issue of abortion is. It’s clear — from the 2022 midterm results, abortion-related statewide votes in conservative-leaning states and the overperformance of abortion rights-supporting candidates in special elections — that access to abortion has been a big motivator in recent elections.

For Democrats, abortion seems to be the lone issue that motivates voters under 40 right now. Without that issue, they might not be looking as competitive in any of these places, given the voters’ dissatisfaction with the country and the president — but that’s why the abortion ballot measure in Ohio goes into Election Day as a strong favorite.

And it’s why I believe the most nationally significant results are going to be in Virginia, moreso than Kentucky or Ohio. For one, Virginia is the one place where the GOP is attempting to defend an abortion position every Republican pollster claims is the safe place for Republicans: legal abortion up until 15 weeks but not after, with some exceptions.

Virginia as a bellwether

Ever since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, many a Republican consultant has argued to me that 15 weeks is a safer political space than how they describe Democrats’ position: abortion on demand until the end of a pregnancy. Of course, that’s not the way many pro-abortion access Democrats word their position. They say abortion should be legal up until 24 weeks, and any exceptions after that 24 weeks should be left up to a doctor, not a politician.

The campaign for control of the Virginia Legislature is essentially a referendum on those two abortion stances. And it will answer whether GOP strategists are misreading their own polling on this. While a 15-week limit might be a tolerable position to voters who say they are moderates on this issue, it doesn’t mean that’s their preference for an abortion law.

Despite all 40 state Senate seats and all 100 state House seats appearing on the ballot this year, more than 50 of the 140 races are uncontested next week. So while Democrats narrowly hold the state Senate 21-19 and the GOP starts out 52-48 in the state House, fewer than a dozen total races are likely to be competitive enough to impact the balance of power.

And Democrats’ potential strength in Northern Virginia, the engine that has shifted the state blue in recent years, is a tad muted in this election since many of the battleground races are in other parts of the state, including the suburbs of Richmond as well as the Norfolk-Virginia Beach media market.

If recent special election history is any clue, if abortion is the top issue on the Virginia voters’ minds next week, expect Democrats to have the better night. If Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin successfully leads his party to full control of the state, that will be seen as a potential political earthquake — because it would signal Republicans’ 15-week abortion ban stance is winning position in swing states, and it would put concerns about President Joe Biden and his prospects on overdrive inside the Democratic Party.

A big issue — and a big name — in Kentucky

Abortion is also a key issue in Kentucky governor’s race, where Gov. Andy Beshear has been running as a “pro-life Democrat” his entire political career. But this year, such pre-Dobbs labels are essentially meaningless. The debate is access — and Beshear has tried to exploit the differences between himself and the Kentucky Republicans since the Legislature passed a restrictive law with very few exceptions.

The GOP nominee, state Attorney General Daniel Cameron, has struggled to articulate his position, though he now says he’d sign a bill that included the more traditional exceptions (rape, incest and the life of the mother) that many Republicans used to support pre-Dobbs. But this is a case where voters saw what a conservative GOP Legislature passed and Cameron has had to own it on the campaign trail.

Yet abortion alone will not explain a Beshear re-election. Beshear has a number of built-in advantages, starting with the fact that his last name is a moderate or centrist brand in Kentucky. It’s a Democratic brand, too, but neither Andy nor his father, Steve (the governor from 2007-2015), were ever considered national liberals. Beshear has also been the positive face of storm recovery efforts in many of hard-hit communities. It’s clearly something Cameron’s campaign is aware of as one of his closing TV ads begins with Cameron acknowledging that Beshear is a “nice enough guy.” That’s usually a sign that a campaign is struggling to win over voters that would normally be in their camp but simply really like the other guy.

If Cameron does come up short, Republicans will point to the very expensive primary Cameron had to get through thanks to a self-funder in former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft, who actually finished third. The lost time and money on the primary is what many Cameron supporters will say cost them.

A safe state having a competitive moment?

The least relevant race nationally, but the most interesting to me as a political junkie, is taking place in Mississippi. GOP Gov. Tate Reeves faces a tough challenger in Democrat Brandon Presley, who, yes, is one of “those” TCB Presleys. (That’s “Takin’ Care of Business,” for the three letters engraved at the bottom of Elvis’ tombstone.)

Presley has run a very state-specific campaign, focusing on two issues: the 20-year GOP hold on the governor’s mansion and Medicaid expansion. Mississippi is one of 10 states that have not yet expanded Medicaid eligibility that was part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. It’s an issue that continues to gain traction in the state and does have some bipartisan support now, as rural hospitals start to buckle financially under the pressure of giving legally mandated but free care without reimbursement from the government.

National Democrats have spent more money in Mississippi than ever before. Despite its red-state status, Democratic strategists have often made the case for success in Mississippi, and it always begins with energizing the state’s large African American population. It’s the largest population as a share of the total in any state, but the party has never truly put the resources to fully engage Black voters in Mississippi.

Reeves has struggled to separate himself from the previous GOP administration, which had its fingerprints all over the scandal involving Brett Favre and the misallocation of welfare money. While Reeves wasn’t directly involved, he didn’t exactly help get to the bottom of the scandal. And more importantly for Presley’s campaign, the welfare scandal has helped make the “Republicans have been in charge for too long” argument.

Also of note: Reeves is not Beshear on the charisma front, while Presley has the “Presley” charm. Is that worth 2 or 3 points? Probably. Is it enough to overtake Reeves? I’m skeptical. A Presley victory only happens if Black turnout and youth turnout are higher than usual. So far, there hasn’t been any indication of that, but that’s why we hold elections.

This is the first governor’s race since Mississippi ditched a questionable, Jim Crow-era provision in its state constitution, which said a candidate had to win both a majority of the vote and a majority of state House districts — or the election would be decided by the Legislature. The provision was intended to create an extra hurdle for Black candidates. Voters rightly decided it had to go. But in its place is a provision calling for a runoff if no candidate gets a majority, and this race is close enough that we could see Reeves and Presley face off on Nov. 28. Given how easily all elections get nationalized, don’t assume anything with a runoff in this atmosphere.  

So if you are watching this Tuesday with 2024 on your mind, here’s one way to look at it: A Beshear victory, coupled with Democrats winning control of both houses of the Virginia Legislature (and the expected win for abortion rights supporters in Ohio), would be a sign that abortion is still a big motivating issue for voters, trumping everything else. It would certainly signal to national Democrats that, despite Biden’s unpopularity and the country’s general discontent with their buying power and the dysfunction of our politics, there is a path to electoral victory in 2024, thanks to abortion.

A good night for Republicans would be an upset in Kentucky, coupled with an outright win in Mississippi and holding at least one legislative chamber in Virginia. A set of results like that would tell Republicans that the mood of the electorate is helping them more than it is hurting them. And it would also reassure Republicans that there is a way to fight to a draw on abortion, allowing them to litigate other issues with swing voters.

On 2024: What Haley’s rise means

Back in the before times (as in, before Trump came down that escalator in June 2015), Nikki Haley’s current trajectory would be seen by many as a sign that she had a legitimate shot at the nomination. But despite all the evidence pointing to the former United Nations ambassador as the best-positioned Trump alternative, there aren’t a lot of folks running to the proverbial betting window to grab a “Haley as GOP nominee” ticket.

The reason: A majority of Republican voters think Trump can beat Biden and, until that changes, it’s going to be hard for anyone else to take this nomination from Trump. Haley’s rise has come at the expense of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as just about every Iowa and New Hampshire poll has shown. And this is as much about DeSantis as it is about Haley. Just look at the support DeSantis has kept in Iowa vs. the support he’s lost.

When DeSantis first announced, his support was basically made up of two groups of GOP voters: Trump supporters who believed it was DeSantis’ turn and exhausted former Trump Republicans who had turned against the former president. Well, Haley has acquired just about all of the second category from DeSantis — but none of the first, raising questions about a potential ceiling for Haley. She may be on her way to becoming the last candidate standing against Trump, but where can she win?

As long as DeSantis and Sen. Tim Scott are competing in Iowa and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continues his one-state political brand-rehabilitation tour in New Hampshire, Haley has very little room to grow. If Haley continues to impress at the Trump-less GOP debates, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear for louder calls from non-Trump Republicans to consolidate behind Haley. Already, Scott is one step closer to accepting that reality with his decision to focus all his resources on Iowa.

Let’s say the waters part a bit for Haley in both early states, and Scott and Christie drop out. (DeSantis has too much money and personal ego to drop before the first caucus, right? Right?). Perhaps that’s enough for her to get close in both states, or maybe even win in New Hampshire. Can she hold up in a one-on-one with her old boss after that?

Trump hasn’t really turned his social media or super PAC fire on Haley just yet, but it’s coming. (They are still focused on finishing off DeSantis.) Just how will the GOP electorate respond? Time and time again, many of us have overestimated the potential for outrage against Trump. He said some horrendous and vile things about women during the primary and none of it seemed to have an impact.

And keep this in mind: More than 60% of the likely Iowa caucus electorate is male, a gender divide trend we are seeing grow in every Republican electorate in every state.

Dean Phillips buries his own message

One of the odder phenomena of the current presidential campaign is how many candidates are claiming they’re running for one reason when speaking to reporters — but then ignoring said rationale when actually speaking with voters. Only very recently, for instance, have a few of the Republicans running against Trump actually made an ethical or moral case against him when speaking with voters.

Take Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips. During interviews, he had made his rationale for launching a primary campaign against Biden fairly clear: He loves what Biden has done but believes the voters won’t re-elect him because they fear he’s not up to the job. 

One can agree or disagree with his analysis. But regardless, this is not what came through in the first TV ad Phillips launched in New Hampshire. Instead, he ran a bio spot with no biography in it, let alone any rationale. See for yourself.

One thing New Hampshire voters expect is straight talk. And this spot doesn’t do that. Challenging an incumbent means not just asking voters to pick you but asking voters to fire the incumbent. I don’t know what to read into this spot. It’s filled with subtle messaging but nothing direct. He hints at his appeal to independents in the state with the line about guns and fishing; he hints at economic frustration; and he hints at the dysfunction issue with the call to “repair America.” But the ad is basically asking voters who see it to look up more information about him themselves.

It’s not an offensive ad, so that might be the message. But while Democratic voters have sent the message that they are open to an alternative to Biden, they are not simply going to gravitate to anyone who shows up on the ballot.

As the great political commentator Ric Flair has said: If you want to be the man, you have got to beat the man. And from what I’ve seen out of Phillips so far, his is a campaign in search of a message even though, ironically, he had one at the ready before he announced. 

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