Our November 2023 State Legislative and Referendum Elections Preview

Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections may take up most of the attention, but they’re not the only important contests taking place this week. In Ohio, voters will decide two high-profile state initiatives. The first, Issue 1, would establish a state constitutional right to free reproductive decision making while prohibiting abortion restrictions prior to fetal viability. The second, Issue 2, would legalize the sale, purchase, and possession of recreational marijuana for those 21 years or older in the state.

We expect both measures to pass. A recent Baldwin Wallace University poll found a 58-34 lead for “yes” on Issue 1, and a 57-36 lead for “yes” on Issue 2. When polling is scarce or unreliable, spending data also serves as a good reference. Those numbers support these survey results. Just like it did in August’s proxy abortion referendum, the pro-choice side currently enjoys a healthy financial edge in the Issue 1 campaign.

“No on 1” won by 14 points back then, with a similar pre-election edge in polling. We do not expect the victory margin to be quite so high this time. Firstly, unlike the August referendum, the November election requires an affirmative vote for a pro-choice victory, and research has suggested that status quo bias tends to push marginal voters towards “no” on ballot referendums. But Ohio is still a state that marginally supports abortion rights, even according to pre-Dobbs surveys, and given the financial edge that the pro-choice side enjoys, we would be mildly surprised to see Issue 1 fail.

Issue 2 should pass as well, partly because initiatives legalizing marijuana have already passed in a host of blue, purple, and red states; in 2022, for example, voters in Missouri, a considerably redder state than Ohio, voted for legalization by 7 points. 

Interestingly, however, the same Baldwin Wallace University poll suggests that the coalition for Issue 2 is quite different than Issue 1’s — while Issue 1 (abortion rights) was much more polarized among partisan lines, with 89% of Democrats, 51% of independents, and 39% of Republicans backing it, Issue 2 saw a much more heterogeneous split, with 66% of Democrats, 50% of Republicans, and 59% of independents supporting it.

The difference in coalitions is unsurprising, as abortion tends to be a much more polarizing topic than marijuana legalization. There are a lot of pro-choice Democrats who would vote “no” on legal marijuana, and there is an increasing number of pro-life Republicans who would support the recreational sale and use. We would expect “yes” on Issue 1 to have more support in the cities, while “yes” on Issue 2 would likely outrun its counterpart in rural and exurban areas. However, regardless of the exact details, we think it is slightly more likely than not that both initiatives will succeed in the Buckeye State.

In Pennsylvania, control for a currently-vacant State Supreme Court seat is up for grabs, with Democrat Daniel McCaffery going up against Republican Carolyn Carluccio. While the Court majority is assuredly Democratic regardless of the election, a win would give Democrats a commanding 5–2 advantage on the bench, whereas a Republican win would cut the advantage to 4–3 and make a GOP flip of the chamber much more feasible in the near future.

Polling is scarce, but data from AdImpact shows Democrats massively outspending the Republicans in this election at both the campaign and external organization levels. Democrats have spent a combined $6.8 million, in comparison to the GOP’s $3.5M. We would not bet on the post-Dobbs struggles in persuasion that Republicans have faced in the Keystone State reversing, and while the GOP will always have an excellent shot due to the close nature of the state as a whole, we think it is more likely than not that this specific election sees a narrow Democratic victory.

State Legislative Elections

There are also a number of competitive legislative races taking place next week. The most high-profile battle is taking place in Virginia, where Republicans are aiming to win a trifecta for Governor Glenn Youngkin. We stand by our prediction from two weeks ago that they are unlikely to succeed. After picking our last six tossups, we favor Democrats to flip the House of Delegates, taking a 51–49 majority. In the Senate, we’re expecting Democrats to retain control of the chamber with their current 22–18 majority.

In HD-21, based in western Prince William County, we favor Democrat Josh Thomas to beat Republican John Stirrup. Thomas has outspent Stirrup considerably, with Democratic ad reservations dwarfing the Republicans’ in the final weeks of the campaign. While HD-21, like most of NoVA, votes more Republican in downballot elections than at the top of the ticket, it still voted Democratic for Congress in 2022 and is more Democratic than not; Democrats are favored here.

It’s much less clear which party will win HD-82 despite its Biden +10 partisan lean. Republican incumbent Kim Taylor narrowly won in a 2021 upset and now faces Democrat Kimberly Pope Adams, a CPA, in a redrawn district. HD-82 is plurality Black by total population with the Democratic base situated in Petersburg. The seat has trended Republican over the last decade, and Black turnout has been an obstacle for Democrats here in off-year elections.

Ultimately, both finances and incumbency favor Taylor. Pope Adams has outraised Taylor on her own, but Republicans have outpaced Democrats in terms of outside ad spending. Looking at the upcoming reservations for the final two weeks, Republicans have made a late push to hold the seat while Democrats appear to be letting up.

Like in HD-21, Democrats can probably also count on a victory in HD-97. This Biden +12, Youngkin +2 seat located in Hampton Roads is currently held by Republican incumbent Karen Greenhalgh. We’re expecting Democratic challenger Michael Feggans to knock her off. He’s outraised Greenhalgh and also benefits from a Democratic outside spending advantage, which is keeping pace with Republican ad reservations in the final days of the race.

We’re also eliminating three tossups in the Senate. The first, SD-24, is expected to be an especially close race. Based on a combination of partisan lean, internal fundraising data, and outside spending statistics, Democratic incumbent Monty Mason is favored to narrowly retain his Peninsula-based seat against ex-sheriff Danny Diggs.

In open SD-27, located in the Fredericksburg area, we’re giving a narrow edge to Republican delegate Tara Durant. Though she’s been outspent by Democrat Joel Griffin, her district is characteristically redder down ballot, backing Youngkin by almost 10 points in 2021. Furthermore, her candidacy stands to benefit from independent Monica Gary, a former Stafford County supervisor who is viewed as a potential drag on Democrats.

Finally, the Loudoun County-based SD-31 will see Democrat Russet Perry round out 22 seats for the Democrats. Republicans have been excited about their candidate Juan Pablo Segura since the start of the cycle, and the GOP does have an advantage over the Democrats in terms of spending on ads, but the district partisanship and momentum is likely to work in Perry’s favor if the environment really does favor Democrats as we expect. Democrats have also backed off ad reservations in the final days here, suggesting they also expect a victory. 

As for other states with legislative chambers up for election this cycle, New Jersey is the only one hosting multiple competitive races. We expect Democrats to hold their majorities in both the Senate and Assembly, as we wrote last week. There are a few races worth watching in the Garden State. In LD-11, Republican assemblywomen Marilyn Piperno and Kim Eulner are widely viewed as underdogs in their bid for reelection. On the Senate side, LD-03 (Durr) and LD-04 (Madden – Open) are expected to host particularly competitive races, which could turn back the clock for ailing South Jersey Democrats.

In Mississippi, Republicans are set to hold both chambers of the legislature comfortably, with many races simply being uncontested.

My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.

Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or harrisonwlavelle1@gmail.com

I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.