Off-year elections, with their unpredictable turnout and varying levels of competitiveness, can be imperfect predictors of presidential-year contests.
But this year’s races are stacked with insights for 2024’s presidential election and the looming battle for control of Congress — indicating, for example, whether suburban swing voters will be moved by attempts to restrict abortion access and whether a pair of Southern-state Democrats can outrun an unpopular president.
Abortion access is the throughline for many of these races. Democrats, encouraged by a winning record for abortion rights since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, made local races in Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia about abortion access. In Mississippi, Democrats are also calling for Medicaid expansion to shore up a failing rural hospital system, while Republicans — there and elsewhere in the country — seek to make the election a referendum on President Joe Biden, whom a damning new poll showed losing to former President Donald Trump in five key battlegrounds.
Here are the races, including a hotly contested school board race in Virginia and a countywide contest in a Pennsylvania swing county, that are worth watching on Tuesday.
Local Races Dominate In Virginia
More than other off-year contests, Virginia’s legislative races are a bellwether for 2024. After trending blue for the last decade, Virginia took a sharp right turn in 2021, electing a Republican governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general all in the same year, and flipping the lower legislative chamber, the House of Delegates.
Republicans want to finish what they started, keeping their slim House majority and gaining control of the Virginia Senate. Republicans need to flip just two state Senate seats to establish an evenly divided upper chamber, in which case Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, a Republican, would act as the tie-breaking vote.
A Republican majority would give Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) the ability to enact a legislative agenda that includes the passage of a 15-week abortion ban. That’s of particular concern to Democrats, who fear losing the last point of access for abortion across the South.
The road to controlling the legislature runs through Virginia’s heavily contested suburbs, where the swing voters who propelled Youngkin’s 2021 victory presaged Democrats losing the U.S. House a year later. The result has been wall-to-wall advertising from national groups on both sides who seek not only control of the legislature, but the momentum boost heading into 2024.
The races to watch here extend far down the ballot, too: In Loudoun County, a wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C., conservatives are trying to take over a school board governing a district known for elite schools because they don’t like how racism and history are being taught in classrooms. It’s more proof that school board wars over so-called “critical race theory” are still raging around the country.
A Kentucky Democrat Plays Defense In Trump Country
Incumbent Gov. Andy Beshear (D) is fending off a challenge from Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron in Kentucky, where Trump won by 26 points in 2020. The math here is stacked against any Democrat, even a popular governor who is well-liked among Republicans. Polls nonetheless show Beshear with an edge, making Kentucky’s gubernatorial election a true nail-biter.
A Beshear win would provide Democrats with some hope they can carry conservative Southern states, even if Beshear is something of an anomaly — as the son of a popular former governor, Steve Beshear, he has name recognition and generational goodwill that is hard to replicate.
A win for Cameron, on the other hand, will mean he becomes the country’s first Black Republican elected since Reconstruction, instantly elevating his national profile.
Cameron and national Republicans have tried to yoke Beshear to President Joe Biden, whose job approval in the state is deep underwater, while Beshear has tried to keep the focus on local issues, like his handling of a series of devastating natural disasters.
To hear Democrats tell it, the race is a referendum, too, on Kentucky’s ultra-restrictive abortion law, which does not include exceptions for rape and incest.
Cameron, who is staunchly anti-choice, has waffled on whether he would sign a bill establishing exceptions. Beshear, who supports “reasonable restrictions” on the procedure as well as amending the state’s abortion law to include exceptions, has held Cameron’s feet to the flames on abortion, running ads highlighting the attorney general’s anti-choice stance and pushing him on it during debates.
A Mississippi Democrat Hopes To Ride Medicaid Expansion To An Upset Win
Mississippi is one of the most conservative states in the country and has not had a Democratic governor in 20 years. Public service commissioner Brandon Presley, a socially conservative populist and cousin to rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Elvis, hopes to change that by unseating Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) on Tuesday.
Two key factors have Democrats expressing cautious optimism about Presley’s chances. The financial crisis facing many of the state’s rural hospitals has increased scrutiny of Reeves’ decision not to accept federal Affordable Care Act funds to expand Medicaid coverage for working poor adults. The policy has deep bipartisan support and has helped Presley pick up some important Republican endorsements.
In addition, Reeves is tainted by his connections to the largest public corruption scandal in state history, which involved the plundering of $77 million in temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) funds for the pet projects of well-connected Mississippians like former NFL star Brett Favre. Presley has scorched Reeves, in particular, for firing a special attorney investigating the scandal as the attorney began to pursue senior Republicans like former Gov. Phil Bryant.
Reeves, who was lieutenant governor when the welfare scheme first surfaced, notes that the scandal preceded his time as governor and claims that he fired the attorney because the state needed a law firm with more resources to run the investigation.
The Democratic Governors Association has given Presley $3.7 million, and some polls show a close race, but there’s no question that Presley is the underdog. The state’s electorate, which is about 35 to 40% Black, is polarized along racial lines. In recent elections, only extraordinary Democrats running statewide have been capable of getting more than one-quarter of the white vote. Presley, who has a base among conservative white voters in northern Mississippi and also worked hard to court Black voters, needs very high Black turnout to win.
In the homestretch, Reeves has leaned hard into partisan appeals, hammering Presley as a closet liberal and reminding voters that he is part of the same party as Biden, who is deeply unpopular in the state. Reeves also trotted out Trump’s endorsement last Wednesday in a television ad.
Ohio Decides On Abortion And Marijuana
Ohioans will vote on two ballot measures that may challenge the conventional wisdom about how conservative the Buckeye State has become in the age of Trump.
At the forefront is Issue 1, which seeks to codify protections for abortion rights in the state constitution, superseding a six-week ban that Republican lawmakers had sought to enact that’s been tied up in the courts. Issue 1 would make abortion legal up to the point of fetal viability, at around 24 weeks, whereas current Ohio law allows abortion through 22 weeks of pregnancy.
It’s the only abortion measure that voters are deciding on directly in 2023, meaning it’s a critical bellwether for how abortion issues will be framed to voters next year. The pro-choice side had an early victory in August when it defeated a GOP-led measure that would have made it harder to get a citizen-led amendment before voters. But given the inconclusive public polling, neither side is heading into Tuesday assured of a win.
Issue 2 seeks to legalize recreational marijuana. The outcome will show how far Ohio voters have come on marijuana legalization after rejecting a similar measure in 2015. Its passage would make Ohio the 24th state to legalize recreational marijuana, joining Missouri and Montana as conservative states where weed is fully legal.
Republican officials are broadly against Issue 2, passing a resolution in the state Senate backing a “No” vote on the measure. Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said weed legalization would hurt residents.
“I don’t think the little bit of money this will generate to the state of Ohio is worth the damage to the people of Ohio,” DeWine said last month.
Pennsylvania Races With Big 2024 Implications
Pennsylvanians head to the polls to vote on a host of statewide judicial races, including one for an open seat on the state Supreme Court following the death of Chief Justice Max Baer, a Democrat. The court’s Democratic majority is not in jeopardy, however: Democratic justices currently have a 4-2 advantage on the court even with the open seat.
But Democrats are eager not to see their majority shrink to one vote. Unions and trial lawyers’ groups have spent millions of dollars to elect Democrat Dan McCaffery, an appellate judge. Republican billionaire Jeffrey Yass, meanwhile, has spent millions of dollars in support of Republican candidate Carolyn Carluccio, a judge in Montgomery County.
A narrower Democratic majority could cause heartburn in liberal ranks ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Democrats’ advantage on the high court enabled them to reject GOP challenges to the 2020 presidential election results, and in 2022, to select the state’s new congressional maps amid an impasse between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the GOP-controlled state legislature.
In southwestern Pennsylvania, the Allegheny County executive race could also have implications for the 2024 election results. Democrat Sara Innamorato, a former state representative, is the favorite to win the race to lead the state’s second most-populous county, which encompasses the city of Pittsburgh and its suburbs and which Biden carried by 20 percentage points in 2020. But she faces a spirited opponent in Republican Joe Rocky, a retired PNC Financial Services executive.
With a campaign spending edge on the airwaves, Rocky has sought to paint himself as the more moderate candidate, pointing to Innamorato’s past membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, opposition to fracking, and progressive ideas about policing. If Rocky manages to pull off an upset, it would put a Republican in charge of the administration of elections in a key Pennsylvania population center and raise fears of partisan meddling or susceptibility to pressure from right-wing activists. The outcome would also be a crushing blow for Pennsylvania progressives who have gained a foothold in the state and insist that they are just as electable as moderates in a general election.
But Innamorato has done her best to paint Rocky as the real out-of-touch extremist, highlighting his refusal to state his views on abortion. She has gotten help from Sen. John Fetterman (D), who has stumped for her, and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a moderate Democrat who appeared in a TV ad for Innamorato.
“As county executive, she’ll oversee the board of elections, protecting us from extremists, to keep our elections secure and fair,” Shapiro says in the ad.