It may not be 2020 yet, but today is still Election Day for millions of Americans. You’ve probably heard about the major gubernatorial and state legislative races in Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia, but chances are your hometown is holding local elections, too (check the website of your local elections authority to find out). Not only will the 2019 elections allow us to take the country’s temperature ahead of the knock-down, drag-out clash of 2020, but full control of state government is on the line for 25 million Americans. Here’s your guide to the biggest races of the day:
1. Two competitive governors races in red states
Two states are holding gubernatorial elections on Tuesday, and despite the states’ dark-red hues, both races are competitive. Due to a dearth of polling in Kentucky, it’s not entirely clear who has the upper hand: Republican Gov. Matt Bevin or Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear. But the bottom line is that in a state as Republican as Kentucky — it’s 23 points more Republican than the country as a whole, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric1 — Bevin’s standing as an incumbent Republican governor isn’t as solid as the state’s GOP tilt might portend.
Part of that may be due to the fact that Bevin has found himself embroiled in controversy throughout his tenure, including fights with his own party. He’s fought with the Republican-controlled legislature over public education spending and with public sector employees over pensions. But he’s also repeatedly put his foot in his mouth, perhaps most notoriously when he “guaranteed” that teacher protests had caused children to be sexually assaulted because they couldn’t attend school.
Accordingly, Bevin is one of the most unpopular governors in the country. Even his own party is lukewarm toward him — earlier this year, Bevin only won 52 percent of the Republican primary vote. However, President Trump’s net approval rating in the state remains relatively high, so connecting himself to the president could pay off. Trump even held a rally for Bevin the night before the election in Lexington. Beshear, the son of popular former Gov. Steve Beshear, has tried to make his candidacy a referendum on the incumbent by going after Bevin’s efforts to add work requirements to Medicaid and criticizing his attempts to cut education spending.
And as mentioned at the outset, it’s hard to know just how competitive the race is because we don’t have a lot of recent polls. But established pollster Mason-Dixon found Bevin and Beshear tied at 46 percent in mid-October, while Targoz Market Research, which came on the scene during the 2018 cycle, found Beshear up 19 points — 55 percent to 36 percent — about a week after Mason-Dixon’s poll. In general, Mason-Dixon’s polling is closer to how election forecasters have handicapped the race. Inside Elections and The Cook Political Report both rate Kentucky as a toss-up while Sabato’s Crystal Ball says it leans toward the GOP.
The first polls will close in Kentucky at 6 p.m. Eastern; two hours later, we’ll start getting results from Mississippi, which is hosting the day’s other gubernatorial race. There, the two next-highest officeholders after term-limited Republican Gov. Phil Bryant are vying to succeed him: Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood.
Mississippi is another typically deep-red state, with a FiveThirtyEight partisan lean of R+15. But Hood has a track record of beating those odds, albeit by diminishing margins as national partisanship has crept into state politics. He won election as attorney general by 25 points in 2003, by 20 points in 2007, by 22 points in 2011 and by 11 points in 2015. Following that playbook, Hood has made conservative talking points like gun ownership and lower taxes a central part of his campaign. But he’s also trying to use health care as a way to reach Republicans who voted for Reeves’s primary opponent, former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., who supported Medicaid expansion and actually refused to endorse Reeves after the primary. Reeves is countering by trying to tie Hood to national Democrats and paint him as an opponent of Trump, who is still popular in Mississippi (54 percent of Mississippians approve of Trump’s job performance and 42 percent disapprove, according to a recent Mason-Dixon poll). And as Trump did in Kentucky, he held a rally for Reeves in Tupelo on Friday night.
In general, handicappers agree that the race leans Republican. Reeves has outspent Hood $10.8 million to $5.2 million, with three recent polls giving Reeves anywhere from a 1- to a 7-point lead.2 But even if Hood manages to win the popular vote, that might not be enough to win the governorship. That’s because the Mississippi Constitution requires that winning candidates carry a majority of both the popular vote and Mississippi’s 122 state House districts. Otherwise, the state House will decide the winner, and given the chamber’s composition (74 Republicans and 44 Democrats3), it could vote to install Reeves should it come to this. The law is being challenged in court, and although a federal judge on Friday declined to strike it down before the election, he said that he would reconsider it if it affects the outcome of the election.
There is one more gubernatorial race later this year (Louisiana on Nov. 16), but the Kentucky and Mississippi races alone will test just how nationalized state politics has become. Will voters focus on the personalities of the candidates on the ballot, or will Republicans’ — and Trump’s — strength in these two states be all that matters?
2. One legislature that could flip
There’s even more action down-ballot on Tuesday as Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia hold contests for their state legislatures. There are a few additional special legislative elections around the country. But only in Virginia, where all 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for grabs, is party control of the legislature truly in play. If Democrats win both the Senate and the House of Delegates, this would be the first time Democrats have had full control of Virginia government since the early 1990s.
In the Senate, Republicans hold a 21-19 seat advantage, meaning Democrats need two seats for outright control.4 The GOP also has a two-seat edge (51-49) in the House of Delegates, meaning Democrats also need to pick up two seats here for a majority.5 The Senate, at least, looks likely to go Democratic, as Republicans are defending four seats in districts Hillary Clinton carried while Democrats are defending zero Trump-won seats. Democrats are favored to some degree in the House, too, but the GOP could surprise there with a number of strong Republican incumbents on the ballot. Still, court-ordered redistricting earlier this year changed the partisan makeup of 25 House seats, and the map seems likely to help Democrats — the number of Clinton-won seats increased from 51 to 56. Democrats also have outraised Republicans for the first time in an off-off-year since 2007.
Back in early 2019, the personal scandals embroiling Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring — all Democrats — may have made it hard to believe Democrats would have the electoral edge in November. Yet two statewide polls found Democrats up by 7 or more points among registered or likely voters (although a survey of adults found Democrats up by just 1 point). And a poll testing four key Senate races found Democrats up 14 points on the generic ballot among likely voters.
While these polls seem at odds with the Democratic scandals, the likely explanation is Trump remains unpopular in the commonwealth. As of September, his net approval rating in Virginia was -6, according to Morning Consult, with a disapproval rating above 50 percent. And dislike for the president has already twice boosted Democrats in Virginia — a backlash to Trump helped Democrats sweep all three statewide offices and gain 15 seats in the House of Delegates in 2017, then Democrats picked up three U.S. House seats last fall. All in all, national forces could be outweighing local considerations in Virginia. And as with any election, turnout will be important, so be sure to check out the Washington Post’s live turnout model, which will estimate how many votes are left to count tonight.
Outside Virginia, there’s one state legislative contest that’s also worth your attention: a special election in Texas state House District 28. Trump carried it by 10 points in 2016, significantly down from Mitt Romney’s 30-point advantage there in 2012, and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz only carried it by 3 points in the state’s 2018 Senate race. So for Democrats hoping to turn Texas blue — and Republicans hoping to hold on to power — this seat is considered a bellwether of sorts.
3. Six ballot measures to watch
Finally, some states and cities could directly change policies through ballot measures, the consequences of which could reverberate far beyond their constituencies. For example, if Ballot Question 1 passes in New York City, it would represent the second big leap forward in two years for the ranked-choice voting movement.6 With 8.4 million people, New York City would be the largest jurisdiction to implement ranked-choice voting, after Maine (1.3 million people) did so last year. If Ballot Question 1 passes, it could help ranked-choice voting enter the mainstream through its use in the wide-open 2021 mayoral election, which will likely get national news coverage. Then again, if Ballot Question 1 passes but is implemented poorly, it could also set the movement back substantially.
Two ballot measures out west deal with the hot topics of discrimination and immigration. In Washington, Referendum 88 would backtrack from the state’s 1998 ban on affirmative action and allow the state to use race, sex, ethnicity, national origin, age, disability or veteran status as one of many factors in hiring, education and contracting decisions. And via Proposition 205, voters in Tucson will decide whether to become Arizona’s first sanctuary city. However, the proposal might have a hard road ahead of it, as politicians of both parties — including the city’s Democratic mayor — have come out against it.
Lastly, a lot of money is at stake in today’s elections. A couple measures in Colorado would significantly weaken the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a 1990s-era conservative policy experiment that requires that state revenue above a certain amount be returned to taxpayers. But if Colorado liberals succeed in passing Proposition CC, that revenue — estimated at more than $300 million a year — could be retained to fund transportation and education. Meanwhile, Proposition DD would raise money for the state’s water plan by legalizing and taxing sports betting, which would make Colorado the 14th state to do so since the Supreme Court ruled the federal ban on commercial sports betting unconstitutional in 2018. On the conservative side, Texas’s Proposition 4 would create a state constitutional amendment against an individual income tax. Although Texas currently has no income tax, Proposition 4 would make it harder to enact one in the future because it would require another constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote by the state legislature and approval in a statewide referendum. This could help Republicans retain veto power over a Texas income tax even if Texas eventually turns blue and Democrats control the legislature.
And if you’re a connoisseur of local elections, that’s just scratching the surface. No fewer than 39 states will host elections of some kind, choosing everything from mayors to attorneys general to county executives to district attorneys. We recommend the blogs Daily Kos Elections (on the left) and Red Racing Horses (on the right) for coverage that goes way deeper than you ever knew you wanted to go.
Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.