2023 U.S. Elections: An Analysis

The gears of American Democracy turned once more on Tuesday, November 7, when Americans in a small but important handful of states went to the polls to elect governors, state legislators, local officials, and pass judgment on ballot measures. As usual with off-year elections, many of these races were seen as a gauge of voter satisfaction with the Biden Administration, as the president heads towards likely renomination and an increasingly likely rematch with Donald Trump next year. On Sunday, November 5, The New York Times and Siena College released a poll showing Trump comfortably ahead in five out of the six most important battleground states, sending Democratic pundits into a panic about whether the party needs to more forcefully encourage the unpopular president to consider retirement. Nevertheless, political analysts nationwide looked to Tuesday’s results to reveal what polls might miss about what voters really think about the state of the country and the satisfaction they have with their elected officials. Here are the highlights:

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear Wins Reelection

By far the night’s keystone race, the Kentucky governorship was won by incumbent Democrat Andy Beshear, defeating his Republican rival, state Attorney General Daniel Cameron. Had he won, Mr. Cameron would have become the commonwealth’s first black governor, while Beshear is now only the third governor in Kentucky’s history to win consecutive reelection, the former being his father, former governor Steve Beshear. Boosted partially by his family’s name ID in the commonwealth, but also by some of the highest approval ratings in the country, Governor Beshear was the favorite going into the election, and Mr. Cameron’s campaign struggled to find a line of attack against a man most Kentuckians admired for his empathy, competence, and goodwill. Even so, Kentucky’s Republican lean was never going to be easy to overcome, and Mr. Beshear became governor four years ago by only the most ideal of circumstances: defeating a wildly unpopular Republican incumbent by less than 6,000 votes. There were fears among Democrats that Mr. Cameron had begun to close the gap at just the right moment. 

Governor Beshear won by five percentage points, a veritable cakewalk for a Democrat in a red state in these polarizing times. In his victory speech, Mr. Beshear said that Kentucky voters made “a choice to reject ‘team R’ or ‘team D,’ and to state clearly that we are one team Kentucky.” “It was a victory that sends a loud, clear message,” Governor Beshear continued, “a message that candidates should run for something, and not against someone. That a candidate should show vision and not sow division. And a clear statement that anger politics should end right here, and right now.”     

Ohio Approves Recreational Marijuana and Constitutional Abortion Protections

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, there have been a multitude of state-level ballot measures aimed at either enshrining or restricting abortion protections. In every case, the pro-choice side has won, with states like California, Vermont, and Michigan adding abortion protections to their state constitutions, and states like Montana, Kentucky, and Kansas blocking attempts to criminalize abortion at varying points of pregnancy. On Tuesday, Ohio kept the streak going, voting by 13 percentage points to enshrine the right to an abortion, up until the point of fetal viability, in its state constitution. The measure does allow for some restrictions to be implemented after fetal viability, roughly 23 weeks of gestation. This victory is likely to encourage Democrats and pro-choice groups to put similar measures on the ballots of as many states as possible next year, with Arizona and Florida likely targets. These measures are also seen as a way to encourage turnout among voters unenthused by President Biden, who may consider staying home if not given the opportunity to vote in favor of abortion rights.

Voters also made Ohio the 24th state to legalize recreational marijuana. While many states, red, blue, and purple alike have voted to do so in the past decade, some pundits wondered if any kind of backlash was materializing. In last year’s midterms, Maryland and Missouri voted in favor of legalization, while Arkansas and South Dakota voted against it. In the end, cannabis legalization ran fourth-tenths-of-a-point ahead of the abortion measure, capturing a diverse swath of support across Ohio’s cultural regions. While the abortion measure was supercharged by lopsided margins in the state’s biggest urban areas and then carried across the finish line by favorable support from the otherwise Republican-trending suburbs, the cannabis measure carried an impressive handful of rural counties in southern Ohio. These areas are home to some of the most tragic evidence of the addiction crisis that had strangled the economies and communities of greater Appalachia. These voters supporting an ostensibly progressive drug policy remind us of the alternative strategies that might be explored in efforts to help these communities heal.            

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves Wins Reelection

The Mississippi governor’s election was viewed as a sleeper race by many Democratic pundits, with unpopular and scandal-plagued incumbent Republican Governor Tate Reeves being challenged by former small-town mayor and public utilities commissioner Brandon Presley. Mr. Presley ran as a very conservative Democrat in an attempt to dodge Governor Reeves’ attempts to tie him to President Biden and “transgender ideology,” who warned of “out-of-state liberals” who “want to change Mississippi.” Mr. Presley affirmed his pro-life beliefs as a way to dodge Reeves’ attacks and ran a campaign focused on highlighting the governor’s corruption scandals and improving the lives of Mississippians, like axing the state’s unusually high 7% sales tax on groceries, expanding Medicare, and funding the state’s ailing rural hospitals. 

Mr. Presley kept Reeves consistently within reach in the polls and the abolition of a Jim Crow-era voting system – in which a candidate had to win both the popular vote and a majority of the state’s legislative districts – made an upset a distinct possibility. Nevertheless, Governor Reeves prevailed by just under five percentage points.                 

Democrats Retake Full Control of Virginia Legislature

The election of Virginia’s Republican Governor, Glenn Youngkin, in 2021 (alongside a sweep of statewide offices by Republicans and the capture of the legislature’s lower house) was initially seen as the first swipe at President Biden by dissatisfied voters and a preview of a red wave in the 2022 midterm elections. While that wave didn’t materialize last year (outside of Florida and arguably New York), Youngkin has remained a popular governor in a state that has trended dramatically towards Democrats in the past decade-and-a-half. 

Virginia Republicans had been salivating at the prospect of kicking Democrats out of their last foothold on power, the state Senate, and moving aggressively to enact more conservative legislation, including a proposed abortion ban after the 15th week of pregnancy, with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. Governor Youngkin himself called the proposal a reasonable compromise and hoped to use a potential victory as a template for other Republicans to begin going on offense with the abortion issue. 

The governor’s efforts fell flat on Tuesday, with Democrats retaining control of the Senate and retaking control of the House of Delegates, leaving Mr. Youngkin a weakened, lame-duck incumbent for the last two years of his term. Hopes that Governor Younkin would mount a last-minute challenge against Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primary were also dashed by the result, and a once rising star for Republicans suddenly looks a lot dimmer.           

Other Races, Big and Small

In Seattle, several of the city council’s most progressive members looked likely to be defeated by their centrist challengers as the city continues to work to improve crime and homelessness. Danica Roem, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, will become the commonwealth’s first transgender state senator. Gabe Amo will become the first black man to represent Rhode Island in Congress. Yusef Salaam, one of the exonerated Central Park Five, won a New York City Council seat. Donald Trump had called for the death penalty for those five, who were wrongly accused of raping a jogger. New Jersey Democrats held their considerable majorities in both houses of the state legislature despite worries that Republicans might capture the upper house. Texas State Senator John Whitmire and US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, both Democrats, will advance to a runoff in Houston’s mayoral race. Cherelle Parker was elected the 100th mayor of Philadelphia, the first woman elected to the office.