With election day approaching, two gubernatorial elections remain to be held before the 2024 general election. Earlier this month in Louisiana, State Attorney General Jeff Landry won the jungle primary with a bare majority of votes, avoiding a November runoff he almost certainly would have won. This establishes the first Louisiana GOP trifecta with a Republican supermajority since Reconstruction, as the incumbent governor is John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.
Although this represents a key governorship flip notched by the Republicans, the two remaining gubernatorial elections in Mississippi and Kentucky present opportunities for Democrats to hold or even expand their influence in two other deep red states. These states voted overwhelmingly for ex-President Trump and have been solidly in the GOP column in presidential races since 2000 for Kentucky and 1980 for Mississippi.
Neighboring Mississippi’s gubernatorial contest is more competitive due to the relative unpopularity of its incumbent governor, Tate Reeves. Although he is a Republican governor in a consistently conservative state, most polls have him underwater on the favorability question. Despite this shortcoming, Tate Reeves benefits from both incumbency and what appears to be an unmotivated Black electorate, as seen in 2022 midterm results and in neighboring Louisiana, where Black turnout was a shockingly-low 28.8%, while white turnout was a meager, but still significantly higher, 41.6%.
Democrats have largely pinned their hopes on the fact that challenger Brandon Presley, an elected Public Service Commissioner from a conservative district in the north of the state, would capitalize on the very same split-ticket voting that carried him into office in the past, but Reeves continues to lead in public polling. This is the core of the argument that Reeves continues to be favored to retain his position: Presley has failed to close the gap in independent public polling.
This failure to narrow the race can be attributed to the political polarization in Mississippi, with large constituencies of African-Americans and Southern Whites who have been less prone to persuasion-based partisan shifts. Indeed, changing partisanship is either due to either persuasion, such as in Miami or in the northern Atlanta suburbs, or demographic change, such as in exurban Florida (due to the arrival of conservatives) and in the southern Atlanta suburbs. Unlike in Louisiana, there are no early warning signs of either party being particularly demotivated to vote, and the lack of partisan affiliation in the state further clouds any read on what early voting patterns could mean.
Despite Mississippi’s consistent conservative lean, this race remains one to watch out simply because Reeves has favorability issues. In the primary, Reeves got only three-quarters of the vote in the Republican primary, a number low enough such that combining the vote totals of Presley and the non-Reeves Republicans totals just above that of the incumbent governor. To win, Presley will need to keep turnout high in the African-American-majority Mississippi Delta, while also persuading Republicans to vote for him. Reeves would only need to hold his own among Republicans, but with a high defection rate in the primary, this is not a guaranteed outcome. This election’s outcome is Likely Republican, giving a nod to Mississippi’s strong Republican roots, but also to the outside possibility Presley brings a different Lower Mississippi state under Democratic control.
The more competitive race of this cycle will be in Kentucky. Although it has become a consistently Republican state by all other metrics, Governor Andy Beshear continues to lead Attorney General Daniel Cameron in public polling, except for one last-minute addition. Beshear is an uncommonly popular governor in “unfriendly” territory; Kentucky only gave President Biden 36% of the vote three years ago and yet Beshear’s favorability remains above water. This means his support is built on hundreds of thousands of Republicans who have been willing to cross party lines to support him, both in 2019 and now in 2023.
This cuts against the grain of the modern Kentucky political dynamic, where registered Democrats have generally split more for Republican candidates than the converse. This explains why Republicans somewhat-recently gained a registration plurality in the state, but these local gains are probably due to shrinking support for the Democrats who are not the popular incumbent governor. A clear sign of continued support for Beshear among Democrats of all geographies in the primary election: Unlike Reeves, Beshear won over 90% of the vote in the Democratic primary, with no clear rural defection as one would expect in a purely-partisan race.
This is why recent Republican registration gains are not a particularly bad sign for Beshear. Many of these voters have already been voting for Republicans, and are already “baked-in” to the Republican coalition. Instead, just as in neighboring Mississippi, this race will be decided by Republican-voting independent and registered-Republican voters, many of whom will split their tickets for the Governor.
Democrats also have a recent win under their belt. Amendment 2 in 2022 sought to explicitly state in the commonwealth’s constitution that there was no right to an abortion — this measure was rejected narrowly, despite Republicans winning the corresponding congressional vote by 32 points. This suggests that Republican voters in Kentucky are more open-minded to siding with Democrats on some wedge issues. Similarly, Beshear can hope to act as a wedge candidate, splitting the Republican coalition enough to win a second term. With fundraising, polling and incumbency filling Beshear’s sails, this race deserves a Leans Democratic assignment.
If you haven’t already, please see our corresponding article about the contemporaneous legislative and judicial elections in New Jersey, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, as well as two referenda in Ohio.