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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Checking in on the Moral and Religious People

Republicans lost Tuesday because of poor fundamentals in the game of American electoral politics.

Voting booths in polling place
(DigitalVision/Getty Images)

What John Adams wrote to the Massachusetts militia in October 1789 has become one of the most common refrains among conservatives of all stripes young and old: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

On Tuesday, Ohioans voted in favor of Issue 1, which purports that the right to an abortion is protected by the state’s constitution. “Yes” on abortion won by more than 13 points, yet another blow to conservatives that have suffered a series of defeats in referenda on abortion even in deep-red states since Dobbs.

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Issue 1 was one of several votes that didn’t go the right’s way last night. Ohioans also voted in favor of Issue 2 to legalize recreational marijuana; Virginia’s Senate stayed blue, and the House of Delegates flipped the same way just as conservatives thought both chambers were within reach; and incumbent Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear fended off Republican candidate Daniel Cameron in a five point victory.

The GOP’s failures have not gone unnoticed. In Wednesday’s Republican primary debate, presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy rightfully took aim at the Republican party’s failures. “I am upset about what happened last night. We've become a party of losers at the end of the day,” he said. He went on to designate the Republican establishment a “cancer.”

Ramaswamy continued by calling for Ronna McDaniel’s resignation as RNC chair: “Since Ronna McDaniel took over as chairwoman of the RNC in 2017, we have lost 2018, 2020, 2022,” and “we got trounced last night in 2023.”

Conservative personalities, more invested in 2024 than any of Tuesday’s races, used the results as a whip for their chosen horse. Some Trump supporters blamed some conservative’s fixation on abortion for the party’s woes as a jab at DeSantis, and claimed that lagging GOP turnout proved that placing Trump atop the ballot come 2024 is the only way to energize the base. Trump critics, or supporters of other candidates, said a Trump endorsement has become toxic, pointing to Cameron’s loss in Kentucky, and that the GOP’s strategy to protect life, not the pro-life cause, is to blame for other defeats. This writer believes each camp’s first point is a stretch; the second point for both sides, however, have some truth to them.

Yet Tuesday’s losses should not and cannot be credited to a single overarching narrative, whether that narrative hinges on Trump or abortion. Rather, Republicans lost Tuesday because of poor fundamentals in the game that is American electoral politics.

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First, there’s the money problem. In a country that elects the better-financed candidate more than 90 percent of the time, it is probably not a good sign for your side if you’re getting outspent in almost every major category. In the Kentucky gubernatorial race, Democrats outspent Republicans by almost $20 million: Beshear’s apparatus spent $47.8 million, Cameron $29.2 million. For the totality of the Virginia legislature races, team blue spent $35.2 million, team red $27.6 million.

The GOP was outspent in Ohio’s Issue 1 campaign by over $8 million: “yes” spent $24.4 million, while “no” spent $16.3 million. As for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Republicans spent $6.5 million to Democrats’ $10 million. Republicans were also outspent by a magnitude of four times in the New Jersey legislature races. Republicans did outspend Democrats in the Mississippi gubernatorial race; Republican Gov. Tate Reeves was reelected by a margin of 4.5 points.

For all its bluster of being the party of federalism and localism, the Republican Party is terrible at actually understanding the political terrain. 

Take Virginia for example. In the Virginia Senate, Republicans needed to pick up three seats to take the majority. After Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s shocking victory in the 2021 gubernatorial election, the GOP thought it might hold the House and flip the Senate. Republicans overpromised and underdelivered: They only picked up one Senate seat and lost three seats (and control) in the House.

In Senate District 16, Republicans believed Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant could hold off the Democratic candidate Schuyler VanValkenburg. The Republican incumbent lost by 8 points—which is close, given that District 16 makes up the northern part of Henrico County, which Joe Biden carried by a 29 point margin in 2020. Expenditures for the candidates were about even, with Dunnavant having about a $20,000 edge—though Republicans were outspent in advertising. 

Another seat Republicans hoped to gain in the Senate was the open seat in District 31, which straddles the much more populous Loudoun County and more rural Fauquier County. While Trump beat Biden by about 6,500 votes in Fauquier, Biden won Loudoun by more than 56,000 votes in 2020. Democratic candidate Russet Perry only beat Juan Pablo Segura by just over 5 points, or 4,500 votes. Perry also outspent Segura by just under a million dollars: She raised $5.68 million to Segura’s $4.71 million.

Republicans did manage to remove one incumbent Democrat, thanks mostly to redistricting, in Senate District 24. Republican Danny Diggs unseated incumbent Democrat Monty Mason, who was elected initially as the senator from District 1. Diggs won by 2.5 points despite being outspent by $1.3 million.

If the GOP wants to win these kinds of races, it needs to do more to break its structural disadvantages and less wish casting, and it actually needs to raise and spend the money required to win. These are just fundamentals, like establishing a pivot point in basketball. Things could have been worse for Republicans, too. In Senate District 27, which encompasses Fredericksburg and parts of Stafford and Spotsylvania counties (Biden won two of the three), Republican Tara Durant bested Democrat Joel Griffin by about 2 points, thanks to third-party spoiler Monica Gary.

In the Virginia House of Delegates, Republicans were outspent in races Republicans needed to win in Biden-won areas if they wanted to preserve their majority after redistricting, such as the races in District 97 and District 58. Incumbent Republican Kim Taylor barely held off Democrat Kimberly Adams, though two of the three counties that partly make up her district voted for Trump by considerable margins in 2020. Funding was about even, though Adams had about a $50,000 advantage.

In District 57, Republicans barely beat Democrat Susanna Gibson, a woman who posted videos of herself and her husband on a pornographic website. Her campaign spent about $300,000 more than Republican David Owen.

Maybe Americans love their porn, their abortions, and their weed. Pairing two of the three in Ohio was always going to spell disaster, and Republicans did not do enough to stop them from voting for it. This is the task of a mixed regime—to lead the people to virtue by fending off the will of a faction’s desire to gorge on its own appetites. What if Ohio’s Republican attorney general just said no to drugs and abortion on the ballot?

Some other interesting data on Ohioans’ views on abortion before Issue 1 was on the ballot from Pew Research Center: While a majority of Catholics and Evangelicals opposed abortion in all or most cases, a majority of mainline Protestants thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases—as did religious “nones.”

What happens when even many of the religious stop being moral?

“Have you ever found in history one single example of a Nation thoroughly Corrupted—that was afterwards restored to Virtue,” John Adams asked Thomas Jefferson in a letter dated December 21, 1819. He continued: “Without Virtue, there can be no political Liberty.”