The midterms are over and the 2024 presidential election is still far in the future, which means one thing: more elections in between.
2023 will be jam-packed with showcases of American democracy as voters in a handful of states cast their ballots in key races that will have far-reaching consequences. There may not be as many elections in an odd-numbered year as an even-numbered one, but not to worry — there will still be a heavy serving of punditry and almost as many negative ads. These are seven of the most important political contests of the coming year:
1. The Kentucky governor’s race
The highest-profile matchup is Kentucky’s gubernatorial election, where Democratic incumbent Gov. Andy Beshear will face the winner of a crowded Republican primary in the Bluegrass State. The top Republican candidate is state Attorney General Daniel Cameron. If elected, Cameron, a Mitch McConnell protégé, would be the first African American Republican elected governor of any state since Reconstruction.
Although Cameron received a Trump endorsement earlier this year, it is unclear what the notoriously fickle former president might do on his behalf. Two other Republican statewide elected officials are running for governor: state auditor Mike Harmon and state agriculture commissioner Ryan Quarles. Former Trump UN Ambassador Kelly Craft, whose husband is a billionaire coal executive, is also running.
Regardless of whom Beshear faces, it will be a key test for Democrats in the most pro-Trump state that currently has a Democratic governor. Trump won Kentucky by over 25 points in 2020 and the state legislature now has a GOP supermajority. Beshear has been a very popular governor and won plaudits for his handling of natural disasters in the state, but the state’s partisan lean is still a major obstacle.
2. The Louisiana governor’s race
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is term-limited in this red state, which means Republicans are already lining up for their chance to win back the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge and political journalists are already lining up their reporting trips to New Orleans.
Republican Jeff Landry, the current state attorney general, is mounting a bid, and incumbent Sen. John Kennedy is actively pondering a run. A host of other prominent Republicans could jump in as well, including multiple statewide elected officials and at least one member of Congress.
Although Louisiana is almost as Republican as Kentucky, the state’s “jungle primary” law does give Democrats a puncher’s chance. All candidates, regardless of party, face off in an October primary, and the top two advance to a runoff in November if no single candidate wins 50 percent of the vote. This was the formula Edwards used in both of his wins: The old-school Southern Democrat consolidated his party’s vote in the first round of voting while Republicans attacked each other, emerging with flawed and dinged-up candidates. Edwards then used his mix of economic populism and social conservatism (he’s staunchly anti-abortion) to get to the finish line in both runoffs. The question is whether any other Democrat can replicate his approach.
3. The Mississippi governor’s race
Incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves is favored in a state that has consistently voted red at the national level in recent decades. However, Mississippi is not exactly a Republican bastion. The state is nearly 40 percent African American and Democrats have been able to stay somewhat competitive in major races in the state. In 2019, state Attorney General Jim Hood only lost by 5 percent to Reeves, and, in 2020, Democratic Senate candidate Mike Espy only lost by 10 percent against incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. Further, Reeves is one of the most unpopular governors in the country due to an ongoing scandal over the welfare fraud that led to funds earmarked for poor families in the state being spent on projects like a volleyball stadium promoted by former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.
The situation leaves Reeves open to a primary challenge from fellow Republicans. It’s still a major uphill battle for Democrats.
4. Virginia legislative elections
Every state legislative seat in both chambers in the Old Dominion is up for grabs in what will be a crucial partisan battle in 2023. Currently, the state capitol in Richmond is narrowly divided, with Republicans holding a 52-48 majority in the House of Delegates and Democrats holding a 21-19 majority in the state Senate.
The results will be a major test of whether Republican Glenn Youngkin’s win in the 2021 gubernatorial race was a fluke, or Virginia is still somewhat of a purple state. Youngkin’s win against former Gov. Terry McAuliffe was heralded by national Republicans as a model for the GOP in the post-Trump era to try to win back suburban voters alienated by the former president. However, Virginia has long been trending toward Democrats, and it may simply be that Youngkin’s win was a result of the unique political environment of 2021, defined by a backlash over school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic and President Joe Biden’s political struggles at the time.
With Youngkin also looming as a potential national candidate, the results of the legislative races will be a key test of his popularity at home — a majority of Virginians currently approve of his performance in office, according to a recent poll. A legislature stacked against him could impede his political agenda during the remainder of his four-year term and his case for higher office.
Some Virginia voters won’t have to wait until November for a key election. The new year will start with a special election on January 10 for the state Senate seat formerly held by Republican Jen Kiggans, who ousted Democrat Rep. Elaine Luria in November to win a congressional seat. A win for Democrats here would give them additional breathing room to block legislation in a chamber where Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears can break ties.
5. New Jersey legislative elections
New Jersey voters will go to the polls to elect both chambers of their state legislature, the General Assembly (what they call their House) and the state Senate. Republicans made significant gains in the Garden State in 2021, picking up six seats in the General Assembly and one in the state Senate. Most notably, Steve Sweeney, the longtime state Senate president, suffered a shocking loss to a Republican who barely campaigned in his South Jersey district.
But it will take a pretty big wave for New Jersey Republicans to win a majority of the state legislature for the first time in 20 years. Even with the wins in 2021, they still need seven seats in the General Assembly and five in the Senate, in a state that is still heavily Democratic, and incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy has regained some of his popularity with voters after his own close call in 2021.
6. Wisconsin spring elections
Wisconsin will see two important elections this spring, with its scheduled statewide election for the state’s Supreme Court and a special election for a state Senate seat in suburban Milwaukee on April 4.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court is currently split 4-3, with four conservative justices and three liberals. The retirement of conservative Justice Patience Roggensack gives liberals the potential to retake the majority on a state judicial body that is expected to hear a number of key election-related cases in the coming years.
The special election will be held in a Republican-leaning district that has become more favorable for Democrats in recent years. A Republican win would hand the GOP a supermajority in the state Senate, giving them 22 of the chamber’s 33 seats, with the ability to even further impede the agenda of recently reelected Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Republicans will be favored unless state Rep. Janel Brandtjen wins her GOP primary. Brandtjen is a militant election denier who has been kicked out of the state House GOP caucus. If she won the nomination, it could scramble the race — after all, election-denying candidates fared poorly in the midterms, handing Democrats wins in a number of competitive races they might have otherwise lost.
7. Special elections TBD
One certain thing in American politics is that there will always be special elections.
Politicians die (seven did in the 117th Congress), get indicted, or simply get bored with their jobs. Sometimes these elections are high-stakes and other times they are banal. But it’s likely any federal special election will be fraught next year, with Democrats having a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate and Republicans having a five-seat majority in the House, meaning any change in membership in either chamber will alter the balance of power. There is already one scheduled in a safe Democratic seat in Virginia in February to replace Rep. Don McEachin, who died in November, and we have no idea what else is coming. But, with such narrow margins on Capitol Hill, they could carry extra high stakes.