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Political Horse Race: What to Watch in Today’s Off-Year Elections

What the pollsters say about the big races.

by | Nov 7, 2023 | Articles, Opinion, Politics

A swath of off-year elections takes place today, Nov. 7, in what many regard a subtle prelude to the big presidential contest in 2024. While three gubernatorial races may be dominating the headlines, it is on the Old Dominion that seasoned political watchers cast their attention. Gov. Glenn Youngkin is not on the ballot this year, but the Virginia legislature certainly is, and with this election comes the distinct possibility of Republicans flipping the state senate.

Yes, Virginia, the Trifecta Is Possible

As Liberty Nation’s Editor-at-Large Jim Fite reported, “Republicans currently hold the state House 48-46 with six vacancies, while Democrats hold the Senate 22-18. For either chamber to flip, just a handful of seats must go to the current minorities – something that has happened a few times over the last few decades.” Of those six vacancies, four were held most recently by GOP candidates, meaning a holding pattern would be enough for Republicans to keep the House. There are also six seats in the senate considered competitive. Democrats need to win at least two of these to maintain control – especially as Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears would have the deciding vote in any legislative tie.

Although all 100 House seats and all 40 Senate seats face the electorate, control will ultimately be decided by just a mere handful of “swing” locations in northern Virginia, close to Washington, DC, around Richmond, and south near the Hampton Roads area. A generic house poll in October showed the Democrats with a two-point lead – well within the margin of error.

Gubernatorial Elections

There are two governorships up for grabs this Election Day: Kentucky and Mississippi. The former is Democrat-controlled, while the latter is under Republican watch. Notably, both states went big for Donald Trump in 2020:

  • Kentucky (Dem) +25 for Trump
  • Mississippi (GOP) +16 for Trump

In Kentucky, incumbent Gov. Andy Beshear will face Republican challenger Daniel Cameron, the attorney general. Polling – although thin on the ground – has favored Beshear, but a closer look suggests things are far from settled. Two Emerson polls conducted four weeks apart in October offer wildly differing results. The first, carried out early in the month, handed a substantial 16-point edge to the Democrat incumbent. And the second, carried out at the end of the month, gave a one-point lead to the GOP challenger. So what made the difference?

First, the earlier poll consulted only 450 people, whereas the latter asked 1,000. Also, the early survey was among only Registered Voters, while the GOP-favoring poll spoke to Likely Voters. In terms of poll quality, the one that suggested a Cameron win is head and shoulders above; however, one swallow does not a summer make, and the same is true for polling.

GettyImages-1179382168 Tate Reeves

Tate Reeves (Photo by Brandon Dill/Getty Images)

In Mississippi, Dems are hoping for a big upset by unseating Republican incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves. It appears the Democrat Party has paid a lot of attention to a traditionally deep red state. Though challenger Brandon Presley has yet to place first in any major poll, the gap, when averaged, seems small. However, it is again worth looking a little deeper into the surveys, as the sourcing of some is, perhaps, questionable. FiveThirtyEight lists five significant polls. In two unbiased surveys, Mason Dixon and Siena, Reeves wins by 8 and 11 points, respectively. In a poll commissioned by Reeves, he scores a whopping 18-point victory. The remaining two polls were both commissioned by Presley’s party (Democrat Governors Association and Presley himself); these put him just one point behind and dead level.

Based on these numbers, it would be a major surprise if Reeves did not romp home with at least a six-point lead.

State Legislatures and Beyond

State legislature contests will also take place (in addition to the aforementioned Virginia) in New Jersey, Mississippi, and Louisiana. While political hounds will be keeping their eyes on the happenings in the Old Dominion, it is worth considering that although off-year elections tend not to be about politics at a federal level, a truly disliked executive could result in low turnout among his own party base, throwing up some surprising results.

And then there are the special primary elections to watch. Two taking place today fill vacancies that came about during the 118th US Congress:

  • Rhode Island’s 1st district
  • Utah’s 2nd district

Neither Rhode Island nor Utah is competitive in the sense that it is likely to flip. Once the primaries are completed, whoever wins will almost certainly go on to become the official member of Congress – a Democrat in deep blue Rhode Island and a Republican in ruby red Utah.

And the Big Picture …

Off-year elections have the benefit of leaving national politics at the door and allowing state issues to take precedence, but that doesn’t mean voters are ignoring the bigger picture. As President Joe Biden continues to tank in poll after poll and be deemed lesser than his most likely challenger on issues from the economy to foreign policy and immigration, local politicos may be feeling the pressure.

It is almost certain that Democratic candidates will not be receiving a boost from Biden’s popularity – or lack thereof – but whether they end up with smaller majorities than expected could provide useful data for pollsters and strategists heading in to 2024. Once again, it all comes down to reading the tea leaves.

Read More From Mark Angelides

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