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STATE ELECTIONS THIS FALL- WHAT TO WATCH.
October 20, 2023
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Halloween is right around the corner and many Americans are considering whether skeletons and hobgoglins should adorn their homes and how their children will dress for this spookiest of holidays. But other scary events are also upon us, in the form of critical elections in several states on November 7. While this is neither a presidential nor a midterm election, the results will nonetheless reverberate across the nation.
Statewide elections are now underway in Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, New Jersey, and, most importantly, in Virginia. Key ballot initiatives are before voters in Ohio and Maine, and several contests for state Supreme Court Judgeships are up for grabs. Reproductive rights figure to play a key role, and could make a difference in Virginia, where Republicans are aiming to flip the State Senate and have declared their intentions to institute a 15-week ban on the procedure if they do.
The fall’s election will likely provide more evidence of the increasing nationalization of state politics, as voters continue to vote based on who is serving in White House rather than the unique qualities and positions of candidates. And these elections will further display the partisan divides in the nation, and a growing political schism in the nation.
As an indication of the nationalization of state politics and clear distinctions between blue and red states, there are more trifectas (where one party controls both the executive and both legislative bodies) today than at any time in the last three decades. Republicans will add to their number in Louisiana and are angling to gain trifectas in Kentucky (if they win the governorship) and Virginia (if they flip the State Senate and keep the House).
STATE TRIFECTAS, 2023.
Note: Louisiana was just added to the list of Republican trifecta states.
The Trifecta trends are detailed in the chart below. Note the dramatic Republican gains made in 2010.
STATE TRIFECTAS AND DIVIDED STATE GOVERNMENT 1992-2023
STATE OF THE STATES:
LOUISIANA-CRYSTALLIZING A RED TRIFECTA
In Louisiana, a state where both Houses have been controlled by conservative Republicans for decades, Democrat John Bel Edwards was prohibited by law from seeking a third term, and Louisianans provided enough support (51.6%) to Republican Jeff Landry in the first round of the two-stage election to eliminate the need of a runoff in November, and further cemented the GOP hold on that state. Perhaps not surprisingly, Landry is a major Trump supporter who sued to overturn the 2020 election results. Republicans hold a veto-proof majority in the Assembly, and the only issue with any implication for disrupting this red state dynamic involves whether the courts will overturn a racially discriminatory congressional redistricting plan. African Americans make up one-third of the state’s population, but only one of the six congressional districts contains a majority Black population. A new map that would give African Americans, who make up one-third of the state’s population, a better chance of electing one more “candidate of choice” (probably a Democrat) to the U.S. Congress.
MISSISSIPPI–CAN A “PRESLEY” UNSEAT AN UNPOPULAR REPUBLICAN?
In Mississippi, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley, a cousin of King Elvis, initially was given a chance to upset first-term Gov. Tate Reeves, whose popularity is underwater in the state. Democrats were hoping to build on a close race four years ago, when long-serving Attorney General Jim Hood lost to Reeves in an open-seat contest by 5 points. More recently, however, the race has reverted to traditional partisan form, and Republicans, who have held a trifecta in the state since 2012, will likely continue their control of all levers of Magnolia state government after November. Republicans have a firm grasp on the legislature even in a state where 38% of the voters are African-American. Like Alabama, Mississippi advocates for fair redistricting maps have filed suit opposing the dilution of black voting strength, but it is not clear whether they will prevail in the courts.
NEW JERSEY–A BLUE STATE KEEPS ROLLING ALONG
While Mississippi continues to be “ruby red” in its politics, the situation in New Jersey, where voters will elect a new State Senate and two Assembly members in all of the state's legislative districts, is very different. Democrats have controlled the Assembly since the early 2000s, and have held the Governorship since Phil Murphy succeeded Chris Christie in 2018. The state is one of the 17 Democratic trifectas in the nation (Republicans currently have 22). Republicans made some gains two years ago, but the state’s Democratic trifecta will not change this November.
KENTUCKY– A BLUE VICTORY IN THE BLUEGRASS STATE?
The Kentucky state election is one to watch, if only because incumbent Democrat Andy Beshear appears ahead even in this reliably red state. Beshear has a strong record which he touts, including record-setting private-sector investments and a $5.8 billion project led by Ford to build battery plants to supply electric vehicles. While Beshear appears to be comfortably in the lead, the dynamics in the state suggest that results will be close. Even if reelected, however, Beshear’s legislative initiatives could face significant problems. The Kentucky House and Senate have held veto proof Republican majorities for a decade, and since no seats in either legislative body are on the ballot this fall, the significance of a Beshear win is that Democrats will remain in control of the executive, and it will prevent Republicans from gaining another red trifecta.
VIRGINIA: STILL A BELLWETHER
If you are looking at a bellwether for where politics may be headed in the nation, watch Virginia. Republican Governor Youngkin is not on the ballot, but every seat in the House and Senate is, and the stakes are enormous. This is also the first election since the state Supreme Court drew new district lines for House and Senate races following passage of a constitutional amendment that took control of redistricting away from the politicians. Many new candidates are on the ballot, and upsets are not out of the question.
At present, all that is keeping MAGA Republicans at bay is the Democrats’ narrow control of the State Senate, and the Governor hopes to burnish his national bona fides by keeping the House in GOP hands and flipping the Senate. Should that happen, Virginians will see a red state trifecta in its full glory, and, if their previously-proposed legislation is any guide, everything from voting rights to renewable energy will be up for grabs. Youngkin did not campaign as a MAGA Republican but flirts frequently with that wing of the party, stirring up the base with pronouncements on critical race theory and the like. His PAC, funded in part by out-of-state billionaires who hope Youngkin runs for President, just dumped $1.4 million into ads to support Republicans and the Governor’s proposed 15-week abortion ban. His PAC is awash in money, and pundits expect Youngkin to use it.
If one state’s election has national implications, this is it. The state has selected Democrats in every presidential election since Obama in 2008, and Youngkin’s 2021 upset of former Governor Terry McAuliffe appeared to be an anomaly. This election will test that view, and is viewed not only as a possible blueprint for future Republican efforts in the state and around the nation, but a precursor to a potential Youngkin presidential bid.
On election night, pay attention to two Senate races, incumbent Democrat Monty Mason vs. J.D. Diggs in the Williamsburg/Newport News area and incumbent Republican Siobhan Dunnavant vs. former House member Schuyler VanValkenburg in Henrico County. If the Democrats prevail in these two contests, they will likely retain the Senate. In the House, Democrats are within striking distance of retaking a Chamber they held two years ago. On election night, watch for several contests in Prince William County and Virginia Beach as an indication of which party will win the majority.
Whatever happens this fall, both the Virginia Senate and House in 2024 will look very different than two years ago. Fifteen of the state’s forty Senators either retired or were defeated in primaries. Thirty-two House incumbents chose not to seek re-election in 2023 and the new districts may lead to upsets of some incumbents. The amount of experience and institutional knowledge lost in these changes will make for some interesting Chamber watching in 2024.
BALLOT INITIATIVES WILL HAVE AN IMPACT
Voters in five states will also decide on numerous ballot initiatives this November, including many proposed by citizens. Reproductive rights are again on the ballot. Maryland voters are expected to approve a constitutional amendment protecting abortion, but the big fight is occurring in Ohio, where reproductive rights advocates are hoping to repeat recent victories in Michigan, Kentucky, Vermont, and Kansas by approving a constitutional measure this fall guaranteeing the right. Ohio Republicans have done everything possible to prevent this from happening, including an attempt to increase the threshold for approving constitutional amendments from 50 to 60%. Voters overwhelmingly rejected this proposal several months ago, and reproductive rights advocates are hoping this bodes well for November. A new poll is predicting victory for the amendment, and another measure to legalize recreational marijuana. As many as 10 other states may have reproductive rights ballot initiatives on the ballot in 2024.
Many voters are focused on presidential and congressional races in 2024. But there is a lot at stake this November, and the results may provide some insights about what we will see next year in our fights to protect our democracy.
David J. Toscano is an attorney who previously served 14 years in Virginia’s House of Delegates, including 7 as Democratic Leader. He is the author of Fighting Political Gridlock: How States Shape Our Nation and Our Lives, University of Virginia Press, 2021, and Bellwether: Virginia’s Political Transformation, 2006-2020, Hamilton Books, 2022.
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