What to Expect When You’re Electing, Off-Year Edition

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron speaks to the press during a campaign event on November 6, 2023, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Swensen/Getty Images)

Democrats are having a fit about the latest batch of very gloomy numbers for President Biden, this time from a swing-state poll conducted for the New York Times that shows Biden getting trounced in an Electoral College rematch with former President Donald Trump.  

It’s so bad that the old divisions between Biden and the team behind former President Barack Obama have reemerged, with former Obama adviser David Axelrod calling for Biden to drop out of the race, which came as Obama himself was pretty explicitly undercutting Biden’s staunch pro-Israel line on the country’s current war against Hamas. 

So how bad is it for Biden? Do the polls reflect temporary dissatisfaction that will melt away once voters are forced into a binary choice with Trump? Is there something deeper going on with the electorate and the incumbent that could overcome Trump’s intense negatives with voters?

Lucky for us, today offers five off-year statewide contests that will give us a clearer picture of where voters are heading, including in one presidential battleground state.

We won’t learn too much about persuadable voters from these low-turnout contests, but we will get to see a great deal about how united Democrats remain and how enthusiastic the bases of both parties are. 

Here, ranked in order of implications for next year, are the things to keep an eye on from Election 2023.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Pennsylvania’s system for electing judges and justices as explicit partisans may be bad for Keystone State residents who like the appearance of impartiality in their legal system. But if you’re trying to get a line on the state of the electorate, you’re in luck. 

With 19 electoral votes, Pennsylvania is the most valuable swing state for 2024. It also saw one of the most significant shifts from 2016 to 2020, going from a Republican win by about 44,000 votes to a Democratic advantage of more than 82,000.

Partisans have poured more than $22 million into the contest for an open seat on the commonwealth’s seven-member Supreme Court, where Democrats currently enjoy a two-seat majority. Republican Carolyn Carluccio and Democrat Dan McCaffery are both from the Philadelphia area. Both are former prosecutors who now sit as lower court judges. 

But you might have guessed that the issues here don’t have a lot to do with candidate qualifications. Voters have been inundated with ads on abortion attacking the Republican and a sex scandal involving the Democrat’s brother, a former state Supreme Court justice who had to step down nearly a decade ago for sending pornographic emails.   

While McCaffery and his backers are very much running on the abortion issue—Carluccio says she is “pro-life” but also promises that she sees access to elective abortions as “settled law” in the state, which allows for abortion until almost 24 weeks— the Republican message is a little more subtextual. Pennsylvania’s high court was at the center of the 2020 presidential election, backing sweeping COVID-era changes to election laws strenuously opposed by Republicans. 

National Republicans cited those changes in their efforts to overturn President Biden’s victory. The court has also earned the ire of Republicans for its role in the 2022 midterms, when justices picked a new, gerrymandered congressional map for the state that delivered the first Democratic majority in the state’s House delegation since 2008.  

There are also three seats up for grabs on commonwealth-wide appellate courts, so we will get to see quite a lot about the electorate.

In an election that will probably see less than half the turnout of a presidential contest, we will not learn too much about where persuadable voters stand. Swing voters do not typically turn up for off-year judicial contests. But we will get a superb measurement of how fired up the hardcore partisans are. 

Virginia General Assembly

Because of a direct connection to the 2024 presidential election, we are going to hear a lot about the results of Virginia’s General Assembly elections being held today. Backers of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin are hoping a big win for his party in state Senate and House races will serve as a springboard to a late entry for the term-limited governor into the GOP presidential contest.

There’s also the “snowmageddon” effect, in which things, like blizzards, that happen in or around the major media centers of New York or Washington take on outsized importance in national news even when most of the country is unaffected. When political reporters can’t watch a college football game or scroll Instagram without being bombarded by ads for Virginia delegate races that will see fewer than 20,000 votes, they will be prone to overstate the national significance of the contests.

With campaign spending on legislative races on track to be something close to $200 million, the contest is inescapable. 

But it’s not just geography and Youngkin’s future that makes Virginia’s elections a big deal. In 2021, the governor led a statewide sweep of executive offices and Republicans won a 52-48 majority in the state House of Delegates as dissatisfaction with Democrats’ COVID policies fueled a banner year for the Virginia GOP. But this is the first election cycle where all 40 state Senate districts has been up for grabs since 2019, when Democrats, riding anti-Trump backlash in the blue state, narrowly took control of the upper chamber, which is now 22-17 with one vacancy.

Democrats like their chances in the House of Delegates because the competitive districts are clustered in Northern Virginia and Tidewater, districts mostly won by Biden in 2020. Republicans are feeling optimistic about the state Senate because voters in all four of the most competitive districts chose Biden in 2020 but then switched parties to Youngkin in 2021. Republicans and Democrats are both defending one incumbent in a competitive district while two swing seats, both on the far outskirts of Washington are open.  

Republicans probably need a sweep in the competitive Senate contests to take the chamber. But, given how much time and effort Youngkin has spent on the effort—and given his popularity in the state compared to the low numbers for Biden—a split decision here seems the most likely, since either party would have to run the table to take unified control of the legislature. A smaller Democratic majority in the Senate and a smaller Republican majority in the House would be very much in line with the string of split decisions American voters have been rendering since 2020. But a sweep for either party in this super-saturated state contest could be very revealing.

Kentucky Governor

Kentucky is not in the South. Kentucky is an Appalachian state—mostly rural, but with about a quarter of its population in one densely populated, ethnically diverse metropolitan area. It is not politically homogeneous, having passed the governorship from one party to another four times this century.

In the post-2000 era of Kentucky being reliably Republican on the federal level, Republicans have twice won the governorship but in both cases lost reelection bids.

Please bear these things in mind as you absorb the many takes that will be taken about the gubernatorial election there today. So, no, if mega-moderate Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear wins a second term it will not be a “blueprint” for Biden to win in the South or with moderates or, really, anything. A Democratic governor was reelected in Kentucky in 2011 with 56 percent of the vote. The next year, the Republican candidate for president won 60 percent of the vote in the state. Kentucky is politically weird, which is wonderful in a time of zombie partisanship and nationalized campaigns.

The Republican challenger, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, however, is very much looking for an election typical of 2020s American politics. He is leaning hard on his connections to the MAGA movement and trying hard to make the contest a referendum on Biden. This is not so much about changing minds as motivating lower-propensity Trump voters who might otherwise skip the off-year contest. These state elections draw about a third fewer voters than a presidential contest, and Cameron is hoping that among the 700,000 or so folks who might otherwise stay home there are enough hopping-mad Trump Republicans who show up to send a message to Biden.

A loss for Beshear would certainly be a bad omen for the incumbent president, speaking as it would to the level of motivation among Republican voters. But a win for the Democratic incumbent would not tell us anything about how Biden could succeed. Beshear’s strategy is to keep Biden at a distance and make the race as local as possible, something the president cannot do.  

Ohio Issue 1

In the year and a half since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, pro-choice activists have been racking up wins in state abortion referenda. Starting with a blowout win against an abortion ban in Kansas in the summer of 2022, there’s been lots of evidence that pro-choice voters are mobilized while the pro-life forces are not.

We saw that most recently in Ohio, where pro-life lawmakers tried to head off a constitutional amendment guaranteeing access to elective abortions. They pushed through a special election this summer that would have raised the threshold for constitutional amendments from a simple majority to a 60 percent supermajority—a bid to make today’s vote on Issue 1 much harder for its pro-choice backers. But voters in August soundly defeated the new rules in an election that exceeded turnout expectations.

Today is the version of the abortion election that the pro-lifers tried and failed to prevent, so the expectation is that the pro-choice amendment will sail to an easy victory. If you can win a referendum about your referendum, the main event should be a lot easier. But we will still learn a lot, even if there’s no surprise upset for the pro-lifers.

This is a pretty pure test of the potency of abortion as an issue for 2024. There’s only one other issue facing voters today, a measure that would legalize recreational cannabis in the Buckeye State. And while there’s been declining interest in legalizing pot in recent elections (Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Oklahoma have all nixed reefer in recent votes), abortion has continued to cut across typical partisan lines with voters.

Watch for turnout size, which could be prodigious. The August preliminary vote drew more than 3 million ballots, 57 percent falling on the pro-choice saide, so that’s your baseline. 

Mississippi Governor

If ever Democrats were going to pick up the governorship in this deep-red state, it would be with a candidate like Brandon Presley, a former mayor and member of the state utilities commission who is a cousin to the state’s most famous son, Elvis. Presley is pro-life, pro-gun, and is campaigning on a big tax cut.

And if ever Republicans were going to lose, it would be with a candidate like Gov. Tate Reeves, a low-wattage campaigner who has spent months on the defensive over a massive, high-profile welfare scam that went down during his time as lieutenant governor.

But, c’mon folks.

Next door in Louisiana, a state where there is an incumbent Democratic governor, voters just delivered an absolute thrashing to the blue team.

If Presley gets within 5 points, it would be a major moral victory for Mississippi’s long-suffering Democratic Party, but I’d set the likely margin of victory for Reeves substantially higher.

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