Temperature Check: 2023 Gubernatorial Races

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With just over 100 days until Election Day 2023, the picture of each of the three contests is coming into focus. Narratives are solidifying and voters are tuning in to their local campaigns. The stage is set for a broadly uncompetitive race in Louisiana, a possibly competitive one in Mississippi, and a barn-burner in Kentucky.

Louisiana will be the first among the three states with a gubernatorial election to vote this year, with a comparatively-early election day of Saturday, October 14. While Governor John Bel Edwards has held his position for the Democrats in a solidly-Republican state, state law only permits two consecutive terms as governor. Because of this, Republicans sense a wide opening to secure their first trifecta with a supermajority since Reconstruction. Early polling puts state GOP-endorsed Attorney General Jeff Landry as a favorite for the first spot in the jungle primary, with Shawn Wilson, a former Democratic state official, taking the second post.

Landry will most likely hope to win, or come close to winning, a majority of votes in the first round to avoid any potential runoff upset. A cleared Republican field makes Wilson’s taking of second probable and means any potential runoff would be a conventional partisan contest, which Republicans would be heavily favored to win. From just over two months out, our initial rating of Safe Republican remains instructive about how the loss of both a moderate incumbent governor and of ticket-splitting effects have pushed the Bayou State off of the playing table.

Mississippi is also conceived-of as a similarly-Republican state, but a larger black electorate means that a Democrat vying for the governor’s mansion does not need as many white Republicans to split their tickets to win. In 2020, President Trump carried Mississippi by 16.5%, while he carried neighboring Louisiana by 18.6%. In 2022, Mississippi Republicans trounced their rivals by a 29-point margin, while their downriver counterparts posted a 32-point rout, after accounting for uncontested races

In the world of outside chances, this two- or three-point difference can mean a lot, especially in a gubernatorial race, where partisan effects are softened, and where a Democrat with experience winning Republican crossover votes is on the ballot. Brandon Presley is that Democrat, having last won election to the (now Trump +22) Northern Mississippi Public Service Commission seat in 2015 and winning again as an uncontested candidate in 2019. Observers should turn to incumbent Governor Tate Reeves’ earned percentage in the August 8 Republican primary for any sign of core weakness that Presley may be able to exploit. High turnout in the Democratic primary relative to their rivals could also be a sign that the Governor has galvanized his own opposition. To reflect both the general direction of this race and accounting for an off-radar upset, we’ve set this race as Likely Republican.

Finally, in Kentucky, incumbent Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, is set to face off against Daniel Cameron, the state’s attorney general. Beshear himself served in this same position when he won his election in 2019 against an incumbent, but the similarities between then and now end there. Beshear won against former Governor Matt Bevin, who was embattled by low approval ratings due to having antagonized numerous key interest groups and political actors in the state. Conversely, Beshear is currently one of the most popular governors in the United States, despite Kentucky’s partisan lean. It’s hard to imagine this sentiment souring enough to make him an underdog against Cameron by November.

It would, however, be irresponsible to base our understanding of this race off of one data point. A recent Republican internal poll from  Public Opinion Strategies found Beshear to be leading his opponent by ten points, in no small part due to crossover support from Republicans. This poll is no outlier; in fact, Cameron has only tied his opponent so far in public poll results. 

While Beshear has the advantage on many fronts, it’s still worth noting that Kentucky’s Republican party has only grown in strength through the Trump and Biden presidencies. Just over a year ago, Kentucky became more Republican than Democratic by party affiliation after two decades of consistent Republican support at the presidential level. This transformation isn’t just limited to statewide figures: Kentucky Republicans reached an all-time high water mark last November, adding even more seats to shore up their legislative supermajority. 

But Kentuckians didn’t unilaterally align themselves with conservative causes: voters there protected state abortion rights in a ballot initiative by a narrow, but convincing 5-point margin. It isn’t a far stretch to believe this open-mindedness could extend to the top of the ticket, with a popular, moderate governor facing reelection. It should be clear that on most metrics, Beshear is a clear yet not prohibitive favorite — the governor would likely be reelected if the election were held today. But in the interest of having a complete picture before making a call, Split Ticket holds its cards at Tossup for this potential wildfire of a race in the Bluegrass State.

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