The 2023 elections may not have the fireworks of 2024, but there is still plenty up for grabs. In this “off-year,” most of which takes place on Nov. 7, Virginia will be keenly watched. Meanwhile, the governor’s mansion is up for grabs in Kentucky and Mississippi. New Jersey’s Republicans believe they have a real shot at turning the state red in legislative elections, while there are also fierce mayoral and district attorney battles throughout the United States. Voters will also decide several fascinating referendums, particularly in Ohio, Maine, and Texas. This Washington Examiner series, November to Remember, will dive into all of these and more over the following two weeks. Part 17 will deal with the six things to watch on election day.
Voters across the country are heading to the polls to decide control of two state legislatures, two governorships, and various other races in a pivotal off-year election for several states, even as most of the country prepares for a bruising election in 12 months.
While 2023 may not have the high-profile federal races seen in presidential years and midterm elections, there are several important decisions being made by voters on Tuesday. Here is a look at six key races and topics to watch on Election Day 2023.
Kentucky gubernatorial race
Gov. Andy Beshear (D-KY) is seeking a second term as governor of the Bluegrass State, while Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron is looking to unseat the red-state Democrat.
Despite the state voting for then-President Donald Trump over President Joe Biden by more than 25 points in 2020, the GOP is not guaranteed to win the governor’s mansion back, thanks to the incumbent Democrat’s popularity. A recent Morning Consult poll shows Beshear with a 60%-35% approval rating.
Cameron, who is endorsed by Trump, has attempted to tie Beshear to Biden and “Bidenomics,” along with hammering the governor on crime and lockdown policy during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was elected statewide over his Democratic opponent by 15 points in 2019, but this gubernatorial race looks much closer. Polling going into the race has generally shown Beshear leading his Republican challenger, but an Emerson College poll released on Friday showed the race tied 47%-47%, indicating the race may be tightening in the final days.
A victory for Beshear would provide a blueprint for Democrats to win despite Biden’s unpopularity, even in heavily Republican states, and could set the stage for high office for the governor. A win for Cameron could be a red flag for Democrats going into 2024 that even popular members of their party can be dragged down by the president’s poor approval ratings.
Mississippi gubernatorial race
In the Magnolia State, Gov. Tate Reeves (R-MS) is looking to avoid being rocked by an upset defeat in his reelection bid. Reeves faces Democratic Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley in the gubernatorial election on Tuesday.
Mississippi is traditionally a safe Republican state, but the fallout over a welfare scandal, in which $77 million in federal funds for the low-income residents of the state was instead handed to wealthy state residents, has Reeves on upset alert. The governor is one of the least popular in the country, according to the October Morning Consult poll, which showed Reeves with a 46%-44% approval rating.
Presley, a second cousin to rock ‘n’ roll legend Elvis Presley, has hammered Reeves on the scandal and pushed for expanding Medicaid. Reeves, in an ad cut by his campaign, said that “he had nothing to do with the scandal. Nothing.”
Scandals have played a role in hurting Republican candidates in the South, such as the 2015 Louisiana gubernatorial election and the 2017 Alabama Senate special election, but a loss by Reeves appears to be an unlikely result. If Presley wins the governor’s mansion, he would be the first Democrat elected governor of the Magnolia State since 1999.
The Old Dominion’s election in 2021 saw an upset sweep by the GOP, winning all three statewide races and control of the House of Delegates. Buoyed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R-VA) popularity and winning formula from 2021, Republicans are looking to keep control of the House and flip the state Senate in this year’s elections.
Republicans hold a narrow 48-46 majority in the House of Delegates with six vacancies, and Democrats have a 22-17 majority in the state Senate with one vacancy. Seven seats, four in the House and three in the Senate, look to be some of the deciding races in Virginia.
The result in Virginia will be telling for Youngkin’s power in the commonwealth, but it is also a test to see if the GOP can fully win back a state it thought was gone after the disastrous 2019 election. With the GOP’s grip slipping in states such as Arizona and Georgia, Virginia may be a test case of whether the Republican Party can turn a state that was heading blue back to purple.
Following the 2022 Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which handed the authority to craft abortion laws back to the states, abortion has been a key topic in several races in elections in 2022 and 2023. Democrats have seen various victories on the matter, while Republicans have been racking up defeats but are looking to change their fortunes.
Abortion will be on the ballot in Ohio when voters decide on Issue 1. The ballot measure would make law the right to “make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions,” which would include contraception, fertility treatments, miscarriage care, and abortions.
While abortion is not directly on the ballot in other states, such as Virginia and Kentucky, Democrats are looking to make it a key point in those races. In the Old Dominion, Youngkin has pitched a limit on abortions after 15 weeks as a compromise to voters, while Democrats in the state are advocating far looser rules on abortion and have said GOP candidates want to ban the practice in the state. In Kentucky, Beshear and other Democrats are also looking to make abortion a point in the deep-red state.
Results in Ohio and beyond will tell a significant amount about voter attitudes toward abortion after Democrats cashed in on fears of overly restrictive abortion laws in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision in 2022.
Among the contests in this year’s election are a couple of interesting mayoral races in Utah and Texas.
The Salt Lake City mayoral race between Democratic incumbent Erin Mendenhall, former Mayor Ross Anderson, and community activist Michael Valentine will not be held until later this month, but it is poised to be dominated by its election method: rank choice voting.
The Houston mayoral race looks to be a Democratic heavyweight battle between Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). The election is likely to go to a runoff, with 16 candidates on the ballot, but Whitmire and Jackson Lee appear most likely to advance for a one-on-one fight.
Importance of off-year elections
While the elections in 2023 are important for the states electing leaders and dictating control of their legislatures, the off-year elections can also serve as an early indication for the 2024 elections.
In 2024, control of the Senate, House of Representatives, and presidency will be up for grabs, with several races in 2023 likely serving as blueprints for what to do and what not to do for each party. Abortion policy was a big winner for Democrats in the 2022 election, but 2023 will serve as an indicator of whether it has staying power beyond the initial aftermath of the Dobbs decision, and Democrats will be better able to understand how Biden’s unpopularity either does or does not play a role in down-ballot races.
Regarding bellwethers to look at for this year’s election, the party that won the Kentucky gubernatorial race the past five elections has gone on to win the presidency 12 months later.