Skip links

A 2023 Election Mega-Preview


— The key races we’re watching next week are gubernatorial races in Kentucky and Mississippi, the state legislative contests in Virginia, an abortion-related ballot issue in Ohio, and a state Supreme Court race in Pennsylvania.

— We continue to favor incumbent Govs. Andy Beshear (D-KY) and Tate Reeves (R-MS) in next week’s gubernatorial elections, even as upsets are possible in either.

— If the abortion rights vote in Ohio is close, some key Obama-to-Trump counties may tell the tale of the election, while partisan loyalties in Pennsylvania may be a bit weaker in the court race than in a federal race.

The red state governor races

After Louisiana’s contest was settled after a single round of balloting in last month’s jungle primary, the only two gubernatorial races on tap for next week are in a pair of red states: Kentucky and Mississippi.

Since we first looked at Kentucky, we’ve rated it as Leans Democratic, while Mississippi has been at Likely Republican for most of that time. Part of our thinking is that we see Gov. Tate Reeves (R-MS) as favored in large part because of the partisan lean of his state, while we see Gov. Andy Beshear (D-KY) favored in spite of his state’s partisanship. Both races seem likely to be decided by single-digits, although our working assumption has been that Reeves is likelier to prevail by a larger margin than Beshear. If that doesn’t come to pass, and Beshear ends up doing better than Reeves (and especially if Reeves were to lose), it could be a sign that Democrats are broadly overperforming expectations across the nation (as we’ll touch on later, several other states have elections for offices aside from governor). On the flip side, a Republican sweep would be an impressive feat given that Beshear has seemed like a steady favorite this entire election cycle. With all this in mind, we are keeping our ratings for the two contests as they are.

Kentucky has been the most expensive of the three gubernatorial contests this year. As of this week, spending has been in the $70 million ballpark. According to AdImpact, the incumbent Beshear has outspent his opponent, state Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R), by a better than 5-to-1 ratio on television. That deficit has left the Cameron campaign more dependent on outside groups, which generally have to pay more for advertising, meaning that their dollars don’t go as far as candidate dollars do.

Earlier this month, Brandon Finnigan of Decision Desk HQ wrote an insightful history on polling over the last decade or so in the Bluegrass State. His finding was that while pollsters have often been able to predict the Democratic share in statewide races, Republicans have almost always been underestimated. With that in mind, we’ve been watching Beshear’s share in the few polls that have come out lately. Our understanding is that Beshear is generally close to the 50% mark. While we’re comfortable calling Cameron the underdog, we haven’t bought into polling showing him trailing by double-digits, either.

Our general feeling is that Beshear is in the same boat now as Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-LA) was in four years ago: as a popular incumbent in an unfavorable state, the likeliest scenario would be a small victory — Edwards won in 2019 by 3 points — but the overriding partisanship of the state would make getting much beyond that a truly Herculean feat. That same partisanship also keeps Cameron in the game despite what has seemed like a lackluster campaign.

In 2019, Beshear’s overperformance in the Cincinnati suburbs was key to his narrow win over then-Gov. Matt Bevin (R). On Tuesday night, we’ll be watching the trio of Campbell, Kenton, and Boone counties, all of which have relatively highly-educated populations — according to Redistricter, the trio, collectively, has a 36% bachelor’s degree attainment rate, which is 10 percentage points higher than Kentucky as a whole. Four years ago, Beshear carried Campbell, the least populous of the three, by 6 points while getting a small plurality in Kenton, the most populous. Though Boone was the only one of these that voted Republican in 2019 (Beshear lost it by 15 points), it saw the sharpest swing against Bevin out of the commonwealth’s 120 counties (it swung over 20 points against him from 2015 to 2019).

Other areas to watch in Kentucky include the Lexington “collar counties.” Forming a ring around the state’s second-most populous county (Lexington’s Fayette), the collar counties, on balance, very narrowly favored Bevin four years ago. As with the suburban Cincinnati counties, the Lexington collar counties have relatively high college attainment levels (overall, 30% of residents there have college degrees) — in other words, this seems like the type of area where Beshear could likely expand his appeal.

Then there is Mississippi. Though Reeves’s Democratic challenger, state Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, may be gaining some late momentum, our feeling is that 50% plus one is too high a threshold for a Democrat in Mississippi, at least for now.

Until recently, Mississippi used an archaic format for gubernatorial elections where the winner had to carry a majority of districts in the state House of Representatives and, if no candidate took a majority of the statewide vote, the election was kicked to the legislature. In 2020, voters overwhelmingly opted to replace that system with a general election runoff format (this is essentially the rule that Georgia, another Deep South state, used in its recent high-profile Senate runoffs in both the 2020 and 2022 cycles). There is a third candidate, left-leaning Black independent Gwendolyn Gray, although she dropped out of the race weeks ago and endorsed Presley. But her name is still on the ballot, and if the race between Reeves and Presley is close enough, a runoff is not completely out of the question.

Democrats raised some eyebrows recently with a Public Policy Polling survey that showed Reeves only up 46%-45%, but we have to remember that this is a Democratic internal poll, which means it likely was released to paint a rosy picture of the race. A Magnolia Tribune/Mason-Dixon poll from early October showed Reeves up 8, although that is a bit dated at this point. Based on what we’ve been able to piece together, Reeves is likely up by some modest amount — this race could end up looking like 2019, when Reeves defeated then-state Attorney General Jim Hood (D) 52%-47%. That’s also close enough that one couldn’t totally close the door on a Presley upset.

Such a surprising result would involve two major ingredients: Presley would need roughly 30% of the white vote (if exit polling is accurate, Democratic support has been in the 10-20% range in recent presidential races) while getting Black voters to make up at least one-third or so of the electorate. Presley has tried to paint Reeves as corrupt by tying him to some recent state scandals — a welfare scandal has been most prominent — and has pointed to his support from Republicans. Generally speaking, Reeves’s approval ratings have ranged from underwater to lukewarm. The Presley campaign hopes that white voters who are not enamored with the incumbent would be open to shopping around for an acceptable alternative.

There is some suggestion that Presley has taken outreach to the Black community more seriously than Hood did four years ago. As one of our sources put it to us, while GOP governors like Alabama’s Kay Ivey and Georgia’s Brian Kemp lose the Black vote in a landslide, they are not despised by Black voters — Reeves may have unique baggage there. Still, with a few exceptions — such as Edwards’s reelection in 2019 and Sen. Raphael Warnock’s (D-GA) runoff win last year — one of the broader trends throughout southern elections in recent cycles has been subpar Black turnout. The burden is on the Presley campaign to reverse that. We do wonder if Presley can get the strong Black turnout he needs just weeks after Democrats suffered from poor Black turnout just on the other side of the border in the Louisiana gubernatorial election several weeks ago. Granted, Democrats hardly spent any money in Louisiana, likely banking on a runoff that failed to materialize, while Presley is running an active, well-funded campaign. So to be clear, this is not an apples to apples comparison.

Two Mississippi counties that we’ll be watching next week are DeSoto and Lowndes, both of which happen to be in Presley’s Public Service Commission district. In the former, the margin could be telling. DeSoto County has seen an influx of suburbanites from the Memphis area looking for more affordable housing. Reeves carried it 61%-38% in 2019, so on a bad night for Republicans, he’d probably get closer to 55%. Lowndes County, meanwhile, is about 45% Black by composition — it was the only county that went for former Rep. Mike Espy (D, MS-2) in the 2018 Senate runoff but flipped to Reeves the next year.

Virginia: Can Youngkin ace his midterm?

While our own home state, Virginia, will not see a gubernatorial election this year, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R-VA) name might as well be on the ballot. In what are essentially his midterm elections, Youngkin has taken a visible role in boosting GOP legislative candidates. Unlike all the other Republican governors who currently lead formerly Confederate states, Youngkin does not enjoy unified partisan control of state government.

When he was elected himself in 2021, Youngkin’s coattails extended to legislative races, where he helped Republicans flip the state House of Delegates — luckily for Democrats, the state Senate, which they won after the 2019 elections, was not up that cycle. With that, Youngkin’s goal this cycle has been to retain GOP control of the House of Delegates while wrecking Democrats’ “brick wall” in the Senate. But to achieve their trifecta, Virginia Republicans will likely have to match — or even exceed — Youngkin’s numbers in an environment that does not appear as favorable as that of 2021.

In the state Senate, the math seems relatively straightforward: under the newly-drawn lines, Youngkin, while winning 51%-49% over former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), would have carried 20 of 40 districts. Republicans’ path of least resistance would basically involve replicating Youngkin’s showing — remember, thanks to GOP Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears’s tiebreaking vote, they do not need a nominal majority. The most likely path for Democrats would be to carry all the McAuliffe-won seats and add one, if not several, close Youngkin-won seats.

The cycle’s most expensive Senate race, SD-31, which is mostly based in Loudoun County, seems like Democrats’ most likely theoretical 21st seat — it is the most marginal of the Youngkin-won seats. In this Biden +13 seat, Russet Perry, a Democrat with a background as a prosecutor, is running against GOP businessman Juan Pablo Segura. Meanwhile, Republicans’ path to winning an outright majority in the chamber likely runs through the Richmond suburbs. In the Short Pump area of Henrico County, SD-16 is the only McAuliffe-won seat that features a Republican incumbent. Both state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R) and current state Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D) have raised millions, though the latter has the area’s partisan gravity on his side (Biden carried the seat by 15 points). Barring some big upset elsewhere, Republicans need to win at least one of these races to win what would amount to a 20-20 Senate edge. Democrats, meanwhile, have some other targets beyond these seats, but winning both would likely be sufficient for them to get to a 21-19 Senate majority even if they lose some other closely-contested races elsewhere.

The 100-member House of Delegates seems like a somewhat lighter lift for Republicans than the state Senate, but continued GOP control of the lower chamber is hardly guaranteed. Several of the key House districts are located in the outer ring of Northern Virginia’s suburbs: Loudoun (HD-30), Prince William (HDs 21 and 22), and Stafford (HD-65) counties all have districts worth watching. HD-30, in particular, has emerged as something of a late-breaking race, as Democrat Rob Banse has raised serious money against Republican Geary Higgins (this is one race we did not mention in our comprehensive two-part Virginia preview in late September). If Democrats can win this open seat — it is basically the most Republican parts of Loudoun County and only barely went for Biden in 2020 — it likely would be a sign that they’re on track to retake the chamber, as it is a must-win seat for Republicans, not Democrats.

Elsewhere in the commonwealth, we’re paying attention to several districts in between the Richmond and Virginia Beach areas. While persuasion will be key in those Northern Virginia seats, Democrats’ chances in the southeastern districts may be more reliant on turnout. HD-82, which includes Petersburg, along with a sampling of rural localities, is one that stands out. This plurality-Black seat is hosting a Toss-up contest that Center for Politics Scholar (and former state delegate) David Ramadan dubbed the “Battle of the Kimberlys” — current Del. Kim Taylor (R) is facing off against Democrat Kimberly Pope Adams. Considering where Republican legislative candidates did well in 2021, this seat seems likely to be part of any feasible GOP majority.

For his part, Youngkin remains a popular governor — a recent survey from Christopher Newport University put his approval rating at 55%, which matches his standing in most other polls. But Youngkin, throughout his first two years in office, has been restrained by a Democratic state Senate. Tuesday’s results will show if Virginians — or, at least the voters in the marginal districts — are comfortable giving his Republicans total control in an otherwise blue state. This is ultimately impressionistic, but this year doesn’t seem to have the “feel” of 2021 in Virginia, when Youngkin and Republicans won the statewide offices and flipped the state House (we know that doesn’t sound quantitative, and it’s not intended to be).

Ohio: Obama to Trump to pro-abortion rights?

It may be that this November’s state Issue 1 in Ohio is basically a repeat of August’s state Issue 1. If so, we aren’t going to have to do any deep scouring of the results on Election Night to figure out what’s going on — the earlier Issue 1, which basically became a proxy fight over abortion rights, saw the pro-abortion rights side win by 14 points. That was an easy race to call once we started getting some complete county results — in Ohio, the early vote has a decidedly pro-Democratic (or, in this case, pro-abortion rights) lean.

The August Issue 1 was a proposal to raise the bar for passing constitutional amendment ballot issues from 50% to 60% and otherwise make it harder for outside groups to present such ballot issues to voters. It was widely viewed as an attempt to short-circuit this November’s constitutional amendment ballot issue, which actually is about abortion rights. Namely, this November’s Issue 1 would enshrine robust abortion rights protections into the state Constitution.

There are at least a couple of things that the anti-abortion rights side have working in their favor in this November fight that they didn’t in August. First of all, the anti-abortion rights side has the “no” side on the ballot, whereas in August they were the “yes” side. There sometimes can be a so-called status quo bias that helps the no side in a ballot issue, although that may be less of a factor in this race because while ballot issues in general can be obscure and hard to understand — prompting voters to just vote no and move along — abortion is not an obscure issue, and it is one where opinions are deeply felt. Anti-abortion forces also now have the strong support of popular Gov. Mike DeWine (R-OH), a longtime opponent of abortion rights who did not play an active role in the August campaign but is very involved in this campaign. He and his wife, Fran, are appearing in ads arguing that Issue 1 just goes too far in the pro-abortion rights direction, trying to set up a permission structure for voters who may be pro-abortion rights not to support this particular issue.

This argument might be more effective if Ohio Republicans had eased the conditions of an abortion law currently on the books (but held up in the courts) that bans abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy and does not include exceptions for rape and incest. DeWine has suggested making that ban less stringent, but state Republicans did not make any changes after their August setback.

Based on the August vote, and the success that the pro-abortion rights side has had in some other ballot issues since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision last year, it may be that this election is not particularly close. But if it is close, there are some key places we will be watching on Election Night.

In the last three presidential elections, Ohio went from voting for Barack Obama by 3 points to backing Donald Trump, twice, by 8 points each time. That was an 11-point net shift in 2016 that then endured, albeit with some county-level variation, in 2020. Naturally, such a stark change produced a much different political map of Ohio.

Obama won 17 of Ohio’s 88 counties, with those victories heavily concentrated in northern Ohio (13 of those wins came north of Columbus). Four years later, Hillary Clinton’s total fell to eight, and then Joe Biden fell a little further to seven, with just three of those county-level wins north of Columbus: Cleveland’s Cuyahoga, Akron’s Summit, and Toledo’s Lucas.

For Democrats to win statewide, they need to win back at least some of that northern turf. Some places that stand out are Portage County, located between Akron and Youngstown in Northeast Ohio and home to Kent State University; Erie County, located west of Cleveland along Lake Erie and home to Sandusky and the famous Cedar Point amusement park; and Wood County, located directly south of Toledo and home to Bowling Green State University. All three voted for Obama twice and then Trump twice (and Erie and Portage voted for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, too).

Going into last year’s Senate race, we were watching these counties for signs of a possible Democratic upset, but now-Sen. J.D. Vance (R) carried them all by 3-7 points, roughly reflecting his 6-point statewide victory. Four years earlier, in 2018, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) carried them, but so did DeWine in his concurrently-contested gubernatorial victory. These are the kinds of places — not quite suburban, not quite rural — where Democrats need to hold their own to win statewide victory in a state like Ohio, where so much of the vote is located outside the core urban counties.

In the August vote, all three counties voted “no” — the pro-abortion rights position — by margins roughly approximating the statewide 14-point margin: No won Wood by 13, Erie by 14, and Portage by 16. If the pro-abortion rights “yes” side wins next Tuesday, we’d expect them to carry this trio. So keep an eye on the winner, and the margins, in these counties.

Pennsylvania: Some scrambled partisan patterns

Earlier this year in Wisconsin, Democratic-aligned now-Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz convincingly won her race. That flipped control of the Wisconsin high court from Republican to Democratic, which could have ripple effects for years to come in what is one of the most important states in presidential politics.

Another one of those key states, Pennsylvania, also has an important state Supreme Court race this cycle. It’s not as vital as the Wisconsin race, as control of the court is not at stake, but it could have implications for 2024 in terms of how election-related cases are decided, and it also will set the battle lines for 2025, when partisan control of the court will be at stake.

The Pennsylvania state Supreme Court is currently 4-2 Democratic, with the court’s seventh, currently vacant seat on the ballot next Tuesday. The Democrats are defending the seat following the death of former Chief Justice Max Baer last year. So even if Republicans win the seat, the Democrats will still have a 4-3 edge on the court. However, the court has deadlocked 3-3 on a few recent key decisions concerning voting — Politico’s Weekly Score has more details — so a GOP win next week might allow the Republicans to get their way on some important issues moving forward. A 5-2 Democratic majority, meanwhile, would presumably be a more durable majority. The key election for Pennsylvania’s high court is coming in 2025, when three currently Democratic seats will all be on the ballot. However, those Democratic incumbents can all run for reelection, and there would be retention elections if they do. It is generally very hard to defeat a judge running in a retention election. So next week’s election will determine how steep the climb is for Republicans to try to change the makeup of the court in those retention elections. Obviously, they’d rather have to just beat one of those Democratic justices instead of two, and there’s also the possibility that one of those 2025 races could turn into an open-seat contest through a retirement or vacancy.

The Supreme Court race next week is between Carolyn Carluccio (R), the president judge of Montgomery County’s Court of Common Pleas, and Daniel McCaffery (D), a state Superior Court judge.

If you are following the returns next week, keep in mind that the partisan voting patterns in these races are not quite the same as you might have seen in the 2020 presidential race. Instead, there are some ancestral partisan trends that might reassert themselves to some degree, as some historically bluer places that were friendly to Donald Trump might see Democrats run ahead of presidential performance while some historically redder places that were not friendly to Trump might see Republicans run ahead of presidential performance.

Here’s what we mean: In 2021’s race, the Republicans won the state Supreme Court race by a little under a point statewide. That came despite the Democratic candidate, Maria McLaughlin, winning Erie County in the state’s northwest corner: Erie voted for Trump, narrowly, in 2016, but it otherwise has voted Democratic for president since 1988. In this 2021 judicial election, it backed McLaughlin by nearly 15 points. The same was true of Lackawanna County, home to President Biden’s hometown of Scranton, which has remained Democratic for president in the Trump era but has become much more competitive: The Democrat carried it by nearly 19 points in 2021, better even than now-Sen. John Fetterman’s (D-PA) showing last year — and this came as McLaughlin was losing by a point statewide, while Biden won by a little over a point and Fetterman won by 5.

So how did now-Supreme Court Justice Kevin Brobson (R) win in 2021? Part of it was doing better in blue-trending places with ancestral Republican lineage. Brobson only lost southeast Pennsylvania’s Chester County by 7.5 points — that was sandwiched in between 17-point wins for both Biden and Fetterman in 2020 and 2022, respectively. Brobson also did better in other suburban parts of southeastern Pennsylvania, including winning Bucks County, which at this point is the most competitive county in the core five-county Philadelphia region (Philadelphia itself along with Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties).

The correlation between the 2020 county-level Democratic presidential margins and 2021 Democratic Supreme Court margins was .96, which is of course quite high on a scale ranging from -1 to 1. However, the correlation between the 2020 Democratic presidential and the 2022 Senate Democratic margins was a stronger .99, showing that the presidential results were slightly less connected to the court results than they were to the Senate results. We do wonder if, in a post-Dobbs political environment, the connection between presidential partisanship and the court race results will strengthen.