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Beware of overanalyzing what 2023 elections mean for 2024

Federal forecasts based on off-year state races don’t always pan out

Republican Glenn Youngkin's election as Virginia's governor in 2021 was seen as a sign of GOP victories that did not materialize in the 2022 midterms.
Republican Glenn Youngkin's election as Virginia's governor in 2021 was seen as a sign of GOP victories that did not materialize in the 2022 midterms. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected 5/22 | ANALYSIS — A recent poll showed a Democrat in position to win the governorship in Mississippi for the first time in 20 years, but a closer look reveals just how difficult that will be. And even if Democrats pull off an upset win in the Magnolia State, it may or may not tell us what will happen in 2024. 

A recent poll conducted Jan. 21-25 by Tulchin Research, a Democratic firm, for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund looked good for Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley. The Democrat led GOP Gov. Tate Reeves 47 percent to 43 percent in the initial ballot test. Presley was less well-known but more well-liked, with a 39 percent favorable/18 percent unfavorable rating compared to the governor’s 42 percent favorable/54 percent unfavorable rating. 

While Mississippi is clearly a Republican-leaning state, Reeves has been dogged by a scandal in which $77 million in welfare funds intended for the state’s poorest residents were misspent and used for pet projects and other programs that did not help people in poverty, as explained by Mississippi Today. It’s the same scandal that involves former Southern Mississippi quarterback and NFL legend Brett Favre.

Reeves, who was lieutenant governor at the time, managed to avoid a serious primary challenge in this year’s race, but the general election could be competitive. Democrats don’t have a deep bench of potential candidates, but Presley is probably the best standard-bearer they could have asked for. 

Even so, Presley will have to be stellar in order to pull off the upset. Following the 2022 elections, Republicans have a 57.1-40.6 Baseline advantage in Mississippi, which means the typical GOP candidate has defeated a typical Democratic candidate statewide by 16.6 points over the last four election cycles. A Democratic victory in Mississippi would be similar to a Republican winning statewide in Delaware.

That means for Presley to break 50 percent, he’d need a Vote Above Replacement (VAR) score around 9.5 points. There’s precedent for gubernatorial candidates bucking the partisan trend of the state, but it’s still difficult. 

Only two gubernatorial candidates broke that mark in 2022, and they were both incumbents: Republican Phil Scott of Vermont (35.7) and Republican Chris Sununu of New Hampshire (9.8). Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York came close with a 9.2 VAR against Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul. The best-performing Democratic candidate for governor in 2022 was Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (8.1 VAR). Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro ran a solid campaign against an extremely flawed nominee and earned a 5.8 VAR. 

Scandal is often the key ingredient of an upset recipe. That’s what helped Democrat John Bel Edwards soundly defeat GOP Sen. David Vitter in the 2015 race for governor in Louisiana. Four years later, when Edwards faced a candidate without the scandal, he narrowly won reelection, 51 percent to 49 percent in the runoff. 

It’s possible that Presley’s initial lead in the poll is because of the negative attention surrounding Reeves. Once Republicans focus voters’ attention on Presley and turn it into a more partisan choice, the race could shift away from Democrats. 

Not a predictor

But even if Presley wins in Mississippi, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear wins reelection in Kentucky, and Democrats find a way to hold Louisiana now that Edwards is term-limited, that doesn’t mean Democrats are poised to make gains in 2024. 

In 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 20 points in Louisiana, one year after Edwards captured the governorship. And a year after Edwards won reelection, Trump won the state by more than 18 points. Also in 2020, Trump defeated Joe Biden by 26 points in Kentucky, a year after Beshear won his race. 

More recently, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 election as governor in Virginia, a state Biden had just won by 10 points, seemed to signal a broad field of GOP takeover opportunities in 2022. But in the end, Republicans underperformed in House and Senate races and didn’t come close to winning many states or districts as Democratic as Virginia.

That lack of correlation from the “off year” to the “on year” will be an important thing to remember this time around. In the three gubernatorial races this year, Republicans could hold Mississippi, defeat a Democratic incumbent in Kentucky and take over the open governorship in Louisiana. That doesn’t portend Republicans will do well in 2024.

It’s also important to remember that just because a Republican is elected governor in Massachusetts or Maryland, or a Democrat wins in Louisiana and Kentucky, federal races will not follow suit. 

There are just 23 House districts that voted for one party for Congress in 2022 and the other party for president in 2020. That’s just 5 percent of the House. After Democrat John Fetterman’s Senate victory in Pennsylvania in 2022, there are just five senators in states that voted for the other party’s presidential nominee in 2020 (5 percent of the Senate), and three of them could lose next year.

Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana are all likely to face stiff competition in states that Trump won. GOP Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Susan Collins of Maine represent Biden states but are not up this cycle. They could be the lone Senate survivors, if the 2024 presidential map remains the same.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

Brett Favre’s alma mater is corrected in this report.

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