President this, Senate that. FiveThirtyEight has already expended ample digital ink looking ahead to the elections that will take place in 2024, including the nascent presidential nomination race and the fate of the Democrats’ slim majority in the U.S. Senate. We’re not going to apologize for this — and don’t pretend you’re not interested, too.
But there are also a bevy of fascinating contests on the ballot this calendar year that will affect the lives of millions of Americans. Three states will hold gubernatorial elections, four will decide the makeup of their state legislatures and two will vote for potentially critical seats on their supreme courts. Additionally, a host of large cities will cast ballots for mayor. With so much on the docket in 2023, we decided to take a look at the high-profile races you should be watching.
Three southern, Republican-leaning places are voting for governor this year. However, Democrats currently control the governorships in Kentucky and Louisiana, while the GOP holds Mississippi via Gov. Tate Reeves. Republicans are hoping to flip the other two, as Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana is term-limited and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky is likely to face a formidable Republican opponent. Victories in these gubernatorial races would give the GOP full control of state government — a “trifecta” — in Kentucky and Louisiana (and maintain it in Mississippi).
|2020 Pres. Margin
|John Bel Edwards
Now, Beshear does have a decent chance of bucking Kentucky’s red lean to win a second term. In the last quarter of 2022, Beshear’s 60 percent approval rating made him the most popular Democratic governor in the country, according to Morning Consult. And while Kentucky Republicans added more seats to their supermajorities in the state legislature in the 2022 election, voters didn’t back conservative positions at every turn: They rejected a constitutional amendment that would’ve denied the possibility of constitutional protection for abortion rights, 52 percent to 48 percent. The referendum result mirrored in part some of Beshear’s success in 2019, when he defeated unpopular Republican Gov. Matt Bevin by less than 0.4 percentage points.
But Beshear is far from a shoo-in considering Kentucky ranks as the reddest state in the country with a Democratic governor, based on the 2020 presidential vote. And an array of Republican candidates are champing at the bit to take him on. Of those, the leading contenders are probably state Attorney General Daniel Cameron and former U.N. ambassador Kelly Craft, a high-profile GOP donor who served under former President Donald Trump. Cameron, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has Trump’s endorsement and would be Kentucky’s first Black governor, while Craft has led the way in fundraising. The only primary polling we’ve seen comes from Cameron’s campaign, which found him ahead of Craft and other notable contenders.
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By comparison, Republicans have a clearer shot of capturing a Democratic-held governorship in Louisiana, where Edwards is leaving office after two terms. The candidate field remains in flux — the filing deadline isn’t until August — but the early GOP front-runners appear to be state Attorney General Jeff Landry, state Senate Majority Leader Sharon Hewitt and Treasurer John Schroder. Landry has a conservative reputation and, controversially, received the state party’s early endorsement, so he should attract ample GOP support. In many red states, that might be enough in a primary — but not necessarily in Louisiana, which uses a “jungle primary” system in which all candidates regardless of party run together and, if no candidate wins a majority in the first round, ends in a runoff between the two leading vote-getters. One of Landry’s political rivals, Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, had signaled he would challenge Landry, likely by running to the center. But then Nungesser surprisingly chose to seek reelection, which created an opening that Hewitt and Schroder have jumped into. They may have more company: Republican Rep. Garrett Graves is also considering a bid.
While Republicans have many high-profile names, no major Democrat has yet entered. But that could soon change: Earlier this week, state Democratic Party chair Katie Bernhardt grabbed headlines with an ad run by an allied political action committee that featured her wielding a shotgun. Another Democrat who might run is Louisiana Secretary of Transportation Shawn Wilson, who serves under Edwards. But given Louisiana’s Republican lean, Democrats will need some things to go their way if they want to replicate Edwards’s success.
Lastly, Reeves is somewhat favored in Mississippi, although he’s received mixed ratings for his performance as governor. Only 49 percent of the state’s registered voters approved of Reeves in the last quarter of 2022, according to Morning Consult, while an early January survey from Siena College/Mississippi Today found his approval rating at 48 percent. The state has faced a growing scandal over the misuse of federal welfare funds during the previous governorship, which could damage Reeves, who served as lieutenant governor at the time.
In fact, Reeves could face both a serious primary challenge and just about the strongest potential candidate the Democrats could have in the general election. Back in 2019, Reeves won a competitive primary runoff against former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., who ran as a more moderate option and may decide to take on Reeves again. If Reeves gets past his primary, he’ll face Public Commissioner Brandon Presley, a longtime state official and distant relative of Elvis Presley who declared his candidacy earlier this month. The Siena College/Mississippi Today poll found Reeves ahead of Presley by 4 points, 43 percent to 39 percent. But considering Reeves fended off a popular statewide-elected Democrat in 2019, it will still be a tall order for Democrats to win this race.
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Four states have elections for their state legislatures this year, with Louisiana and Mississippi holding them in tandem with their gubernatorial elections, and New Jersey and Virginia holding legislative midterms. The dominant party in three of those states — Republicans in Louisiana and Mississippi, Democrats in New Jersey — are likely to retain full control, though there’s a question of whether the GOP can hold onto or win veto-proof majorities in Louisiana and Mississippi, in case a Democrat manages to win either governorship.
As a result, only Virginia looks set to see much drama on this front. That’s because it’s one of the only states where each party controls one legislative chamber. And with Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin in office, the results will determine whether Republicans can capture full control of state government.
Thanks to redistricting, Virginia’s elections will take place on new maps, which should produce a number of highly competitive races — although each party may have a slim edge in the chamber it already controls. The November environment is difficult to know, but Democrats did claim a pivotal 2-point victory in a Jan. 10 special election for a Senate district that Youngkin had carried by 4 points, in a race that centered largely on the future of abortion rights in Virginia.
State supreme court
We’ve covered the executive and legislative branches, but two states — Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — also have elections for state supreme court in 2023. Wisconsin hosts what is undoubtedly the key judicial election this year. Retiring Justice Patience Roggensack is part of the court’s 4-3 conservative majority, so a liberal victory would flip control of the court. The state’s high court has made many major rulings in recent years, including on redistricting and election-related matters, and could soon hear a case challenging the state’s 1849 ban on abortion. This election will determine which side has control until at least 2025.
Four candidates are running, two from each side of the ideological divide: on the right, Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, and on the left, Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell and Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz. The top-two finishers in next month’s primary will advance to the April general election; because the race is technically nonpartisan, two conservatives or two liberals could advance out of the primary, although one of each is most likely to move on. But other issues could help drive voters to the polls, including two ballot measures added by the GOP-controlled state legislature: a constitutional amendment that would require judges to consider a defendant’s risk to public safety when setting bail, and an advisory referendum asking voters if they believe that able-bodied, childless welfare recipients should be required to seek work.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats had a 5-2 edge on the state’s high court prior to last fall, when Chief Justice Max Baer died. Baer, a Democrat, was set to retire, so the election this year is for his old seat, which, while important, won’t alter partisan control of the court.
Last but definitely not least, 12 of the nation’s 25 largest cities by population have mayoral elections this year. Most of these cities employ a “strong mayor” form of government — where the mayor is the city’s chief executive and can veto actions by the city council — so these elections could have major repercussions for millions of Americans. Democrats or left-leaning politicians tend to run most of these cities, so municipal elections can also reveal divisions on the left on matters such as crime, police reform and housing.
There are too many contests to cover in depth here, but Chicago’s race is probably the headliner. There, Mayor Lori Lightfoot faces a difficult reelection battle amid high crime rates, and she has also faced potentially sexist criticism over her combative personal style. Democratic Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia decided to challenge her, and Lightfoot’s list of opponents has grown to also include Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and former city budget director Paul Vallas. Recent surveys suggest Lightfoot might not just struggle to win the officially nonpartisan race; she might not even make it to the April runoff, assuming no candidate wins a majority in the initial election.
Outside of Chicago, big candidate fields have emerged in cities where incumbents won’t be on the ballot. In Philadelphia, at least 10 candidates (mostly Democrats) look set to run in the race to succeed outgoing Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney, while in Houston, eight candidates have filed so far in the hopes of taking the place of term-limited Mayor Sylvester Turner. And in Denver, at least 14 candidates have qualified in the officially nonpartisan race to succeed term-limited Mayor Michael Hancock. Meanwhile, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry is one of the only Republicans leading a big city, but he’s leaving office, and seven candidates have entered the race to succeed him.
We know 2024 election activities will pick up steam as 2023 progresses, but as you can see, there’s plenty going on in 2023 itself! We’ll be keeping a close eye on all of it in the weeks and months to come.
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