Democrats are working hard to turn out voters not just in tight House and Senate races across the country, but in several surprisingly close state and local races as well. Many of these down-ballot races are in areas long considered blue strongholds, though at least two could deliver a Democratic win amid what could be a Republican sweep of battleground states.
These close contests include the governor’s races in New Mexico and Oregon, a mayoral contest in Los Angeles, secretary of state showdowns in the Southwest, and an under-the-radar election in California that could elevate a Republican to statewide office for the first time in 20 years.
So why are these races so unexpectedly tight? A variety of factors, including building Republican enthusiasm, lower turnout from Democrats in some states’ early voting, and poor candidate quality, could contribute to surprises this week — and provide some new strategies for both parties in future elections.
Governor’s races in Oregon and New Mexico
Oregon and New Mexico, two solidly blue states, both have gubernatorial races that have been far closer than expected in polling this year. And both reflect the crushing effect that issues Republicans have elevated, like crime and inflation, have had on Democrats this year, as well as the general headwinds Democrats have faced for the last year.
In Oregon, Democratic candidate Tina Kotek is being dragged down by both the unpopularity of President Joe Biden (who has seen a rapid drop in support in the state since July) and strong dislike for the outgoing term-limited governor, Kate Brown (rated the most disliked governor in the country). Frustration with crime, homelessness, and public safety have fueled Brown’s unpopularity. Kotek’s tenure as a prominent Democrat in the state legislature, including being the former speaker of the Oregon state House of Representatives, has tied her to Brown, and her legacy.
After a difficult primary contest, Kotek entered the general election with divided Democratic support, having beaten a more moderate Democratic rival. Frustration with affordability — and, again, crime and homelessness — facilitated the rise of Republican Christine Drazan and a third-party candidate, Betsy Johnson, a former Democratic state senator, who has used her moderate credentials and business connections to raise money and peel away moderate Democrats frustrated with Kotek and Brown. Though Johnson’s support has declined in the past month, she may prevent Kotek from consolidating enough Democratic support to win the race — a big enough worry that Biden to the state to unify the party behind Kotek.
The story is a little different in New Mexico, where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the nation’s first Latina Democrat elected governor, won her 2018 election by a 14 percent margin. A member of the well-known Lujan family (which has produced mayors, members of Congress, state representatives, and judges), Lujan Grisham flipped a seat that has changed hands, from Democrat to Republican and back again, six times since 1983. Now recent polling has her locked in a much tighter contest, weighed down by her unpopularity and personal scandals, as well as Biden’s unpopularity.
She’s running just a few percentage points ahead of her opponent in polling; an October Emerson College poll found 49 percent of voters support her reelection, while 46 percent support her Republican challenger, Mark Ronchetti, who has kept his distance from Donald Trump and tried to run as a moderate.
Polling shows the race tightening in recent weeks. That’s happened as Democratic hopes of trying to flip back a seat they lost in 2020 have stalled in the state’s Second Congressional District, which they redrew in redistricting to be even more Democratic. The state of play in New Mexico has forced Democrats to be on the defensive, bringing in Biden to rally with Lujan Grisham and congressional candidates in Albuquerque. The president still has positive approval ratings among voters of color, whose turnout will be key to Democratic victories in the state.
One big factor in this statewide race? How Latinos vote: New Mexico has the highest share of eligible Latino voters of any state (44 percent of the electorate), and Republicans have invested time and energy in recruiting conservative Latinos to run for local offices in the state. If economic concerns power a red wave around the country Tuesday, it’s possible we’ll see GOP support among Latinos in New Mexico increase. And that could mean Democrats lose the governorship there.
The Los Angeles mayoral race
The mayoral contest in the country’s second-largest city isn’t a conventional Democrat-versus-Republican showdown. Karen Bass, the longtime Democratic lawmaker representing South Los Angeles, was seen as a shoo-in to succeed Eric Garcetti as mayor when she announced her intent to run. But the entrance of billionaire businessman Rick Caruso, and his huge personal financial war chest, turned the race into a referendum on the city’s Democratic establishment and its handling of crime and homelessness.
Caruso, running as a moderate Democrat, forced Bass into a runoff election after winning the second most votes in the summer primary. He’s taken advantage of his outsider status to hammer “corruption in City Hall,” especially after a scandal centered on a racist conversation by three city council members rocked the city. He’s outspent Bass 13 to 1 in advertising, hired hundreds of door-knockers to reach Latino voters in the city, and turned himself into more of a household name than he already was.
Now the most recent LA Times/UC Berkeley poll of the race has shown Bass’s lead shrink to just 4 points — and gives Caruso a 17-point advantage with Latino voters, who make up about a third of registered voters. Should Caruso’s investments with Latino voters pay off, Los Angeles could see the quintessential left-leaning Democrat, endorsed by just about every national Democrat you can think of, lose to a businessman who was a registered Republican as recently as three years ago.
A Caruso victory would still be a Democratic win but would mark a major rightward shift among the electorate in one of the country’s most liberal cities. It would also show the power of more hardline public safety and crime focus on the local level, and would be a reminder of the advantage of personal wealth in elections (after the primary, Caruso’s spending meant he had exhausted over $175 per voter he won; Bass had spent a little over $10).
The election for state controller in California
There’s energy buoying Republican congressional candidates around California, with at least four vulnerable Republicans expected to win reelection and four incumbent Democrats at risk of losing reelection.
That momentum could also elevate a Republican to statewide office for the first time in nearly two decades. Lanhee Chen, the centrist candidate for state controller, has been running a well-organized campaign to peel away independent and moderate Democrats from Malia Cohen, the Democrat long seen as a frontrunner in their race. The controller is California’s top fiscal watchdog, auditing the state’s spending and advising local governments on their finances; having a Republican in the position could mean more aggressive scrutiny of the Democrat-dominated state government.
Chen was the top vote-getter in the June primary, and doesn’t carry the same baggage as Republican candidates tend to do in California. He’s not a Trump loyalist; he’s said he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 or 2020 and wouldn’t support Trump in 2024 (in fact, he’s more aligned with the old Mitt Romney/Marco Rubio wing of fiscal conservatism, having worked for both of them in various campaign capacities). And he supports reproductive rights. Basically, he’s given independents and Democrats outs if they want to split their tickets — voting for him and for Democrats in other races.
With endorsements from major newspaper editorial boards, a campaign focused on running up his vote tally in GOP strongholds in Southern California and Central California, and coordination with prominent conservative Asian American candidates on the ballot in Orange County, any red wave in California could boost Chen as well.
Close secretary of state elections in Arizona and Nevada
Finally, two contests for secretary of state could be exceptions to very bad nights for Democrats in the Southwest. Adrian Fontes in Arizona and Cisco Aguilar in Nevada are practically tied with their Republican opponents in recent polling.
Both conventional Democrats who have run centrist campaigns, Aguilar and Fontes are each facing an ultra-conservative election denier: Jim Marchant and Mark Finchem, respectively. Both Republicans were leading voices of the effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election and are active purveyors of election conspiracy theories. Their victories would give far-right radicals the power to administer elections in two crucial battleground states in 2024. But their pro-Trump branding could also hurt them — and give moderates and independents an opening to choose a more traditional candidate in Aguilar or Fontes.
The two Democratic candidates also have an identity advantage: Both are Latinos, running in states where Latino voters make up a substantial share of the electorate, and have strong ties to their communities. A victory by either would confirm the viability of Latino candidates running statewide races in the Southwest, especially in Arizona, which hasn’t elected a Latino to a major statewide office in nearly 50 years, and could complicate the theory of a rightward shift among the region’s Latinos. The Democrats also have a fundraising edge, taking in more money than their Republican opponents.
While flashier statewide races are unfolding in both states, Aguilar and Fontes stand a chance of winning if enough of the Democratic base turns out and if independent and Republican voters see the Republicans running in these contests as too radical and are willing to split their ballots or abstain from voting. Because of the limited nature of the jobs they’re vying for, it may be hard to extrapolate lessons for other Democrats but could prove to the GOP that candidate quality matters — namely, that nominating conspiracy theorists to run critical elections is a risky strategy.