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Proceed with caution on what 2023 races tell us

Landry win in Louisiana's governor's race may not signal much about 2024

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a former House member who won the election for governor on Saturday, testifies at a House Judiciary subcommittee meeting on March 30.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a former House member who won the election for governor on Saturday, testifies at a House Judiciary subcommittee meeting on March 30. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — With former Rep. Jeff Landry’s victory in Louisiana over the weekend, Republicans flipped a governor’s office from blue to red. Typically, that’s a big deal, but it doesn’t tell us much about what could happen in 2024 and it’s a reminder to proceed with caution when extrapolating off-year results onto the following year’s races.

Democrats were running on borrowed time in Louisiana. John Bel Edwards was a talented and legitimately moderate Democrat who had the fortune of running against flawed or underwhelming Republicans twice, including former Sen. David Vitter in 2015. With Edwards unable to run for reelection because of term limits, the governorship was ripe for the GOP picking and Republicans were favored to win from the outset.

The two Democratic candidates collectively underperformed by about 10 points, but it was the non-Landry Republicans’ dismal showing that allowed the former congressman to win a majority in Saturday’s all-party primary and avoid a runoff. There could be concern about low Democratic turnout if that ends up being a trend into 2024, but the state and national Democratic parties did not invest in the Louisiana race.

The marquee race of 2023 is in Kentucky, where Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear is trying to win reelection in a red state that former President Donald Trump carried by 26 points in 2020. Beshear was initially elected in 2019 by a narrow 49.2 percent to 48.8 percent margin against flawed GOP Gov. Matt Bevin and now must hold off state Attorney General Daniel Cameron in this year’s contest.  

Democratic governors are common in Kentucky — there’s been a Democratic governor for all but eight of the last 52 years — but crossover governors (elected in states won by the opposite party’s presidential nominee) are becoming endangered species. 

After the 2022 elections, there were just nine crossover governors. And we know that number is already down to eight after Landry, the state attorney general since 2016, won in Louisiana. Eight crossover governors is a tiny gang compared with the 21 crossover governors following the 2007 elections, according to data compiled by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Will Kentucky flip too?

This year’s race in Kentucky is important for at least a couple of reasons. Party strategists and political reporters will be watching the efficacy of TV ads focused on crime, abortion access, transgender issues and connections to President Joe Biden to hone their messages for 2024.

Even though Virginia tends to get more attention in part because TV ads aimed there are seen by Washington political journalists, Kentucky has been a decent bellwether. The last five races for governor in the Bluegrass State have lined up with the following year’s presidential winner going back to GOP Rep. Ernie Fletcher’s win in 2003. Democrat Steve Beshear’s victories in 2007 and 2011 preceded both of Barack Obama’s wins. Bevin’s 2015 victory preceded Trump’s rise. And Andy Beshear’s win in 2019 went ahead of Biden’s defeat of Trump. 

That being said, a Cameron win would not be a shocker, considering the partisan lean of Kentucky. According to Inside Elections’ Baseline, the average Republican has a 20-point advantage over an average Democrat in Kentucky, 59 percent to 39 percent. A Cameron win would just bring Kentucky’s governorship into alignment with the rest of the state’s politics. 

Off-year elections look like bellwethers until they’re not. For example, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial win in Virginia in 2021 looked like the beginning of a red wave. And it might have been, except for the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and subsequent action by Republican legislatures around the country to restrict access to abortion. Those developments changed the dynamic of the 2022 midterm elections by energizing Democratic voters and giving independent voters pause before putting more Republicans in charge.

Even though a majority of voters have already decided which party they’re going to support in any given election, there’s still a possibility that news events impact races.

This year’s legislative elections in Virginia are also a focal point, even though the next gubernatorial race isn’t until 2025. Youngkin is trying to prove he has the political muscle to deliver both chambers of the General Assembly. And Republicans are trying to get back on track with early and absentee voting after Trump effectively forced the GOP to cede legal ways of voting to Democrats because he said they were rigged. Democrats will find out whether access to abortion continues to be a salient issue with voters. 

The third and final gubernatorial contest of 2023 has some ingredients for an upset. But even if Democrat Brandon Presley defeats GOP Gov. Tate Reeves to become the first Democratic governor of Mississippi in 20 years, that doesn’t mean a blue wave is in the forecast. Reeves has some unique liabilities that have made the race more competitive than it should be. 

Even though there will be an appetite for instant analysis after the Nov. 7 elections, the best thing to do, as usual, is to take a deep breath and continue to watch the cycle unfold.

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

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