A referendum on abortion rights in Ohio that will test whether the end of Roe is still potent. A tight battle for control of the Virginia legislature that will send early signals about the suburban vote. Gubernatorial contests in Kentucky and Mississippi that will challenge Democrats’ ability to win despite the unpopular Joe Biden.
It’s election night Tuesday in only a handful of states — but the results in those headline contests, and in hundreds of local races, will send strong signals about voter enthusiasm heading into 2024. They’ll also give important clues about the battle for Congress — and inform the way President Joe Biden and his most likely Republican opponent, former President Donald Trump, approach the coming months.
Here are five big questions we’ll be watching tonight:
Is abortion still a big winner for Democrats?
The Supreme Court overturning Roe last summer galvanized voters and fueled a series of wins for Democrats in the midterms and special elections over the last year and a half.
Tuesday’s elections will test whether that trend continues to hold. Ohio is the most direct example, where many expect the proposed constitutional amendment to codify abortion rights to pass — the only question is by how big of a margin.
Democrats in just about every race elsewhere have run campaigns focused on abortion, from blue-ish Virginia to battleground Pennsylvania and even red Kentucky.
In the Virginia legislative races, it has been the dominant issue. Democratic television ads mentioned abortion about 2.5 times as frequently as the party’s second most talked about issue, education, according to data from the advertising tracking firm AdImpact. It has similarly been central to the Democratic candidate in the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court race.
But perhaps more surprising has been Kentucky. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and his allies released a series of ads targeting his opponent, state Attorney General Daniel Cameron, for his defense of the state’s near-total ban on abortion, which doesn’t include exemptions for cases of rape or incest. While it wasn’t his main theme in TV ads, it was a notable part of his messaging mix — statewide, not just in urban Kentucky — and should Beshear win on Tuesday, it will only further embolden Democrats to run on abortion next year.
There is one notable counterpunch from Republicans. Virginia GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin has rallied candidates there around a 15-week ban with exceptions such as for situations of rape and incest. While stricter than the current state law, Youngkin’s aides believe that their message — Republicans are reasonable, Democrats are the extremists — could at least neutralize the issue.
Is Joe Biden an electoral drag for Democrats?
Biden’s approval rating continues to sink. But will voters punish Democrats for it?
Republicans in Kentucky and Mississippi — where Republican Gov. Tate Reeves is looking to hold off Democrat Brandon Presley, a state public service commissioner and distant cousin of the famous late singer with the same last name — have relentlessly looked to tie the Democratic candidates to the president, who is particularly unpopular in the deep-red states.
The contests are a test of the nationalization of politics — will Biden be a drag to races he isn’t talking about? — and a gut-check on whether Biden’s bad approval ratings are as dangerous for Democrats as they seem on paper, or more of an electoral mirage that suggests some voters are still open to pulling the lever for him, even if they aren’t necessarily happy about it.
Virginia, too, will be a place to watch. Biden is under water there in a state he won by 10 points in 2020, and many of the suburban battleground districts this year are ones Democrats have carried in recent elections — with the notable exception of Youngkin’s 2021 upset.
Will Black voters turn out?
Black voters will be central to the Democratic coalition in 2024. But are they excited to vote?
There have been early warning signs for Democrats that this crucial constituency may not give Biden the support he needs next year. Republicans flipped Louisiana’s governorship in an open-seat race earlier this year, when Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry won a surprise outright victory in October instead of having to duke it out in a runoff.
Even acknowledging the fact that the Democratic candidate, Shawn Wilson — who is Black — didn’t get much national support, the loss suggested some level of diminished Black turnout.
Tuesday’s contests will test whether that was an aberration — or Democrats need to hit the panic button.
One particularly important race to watch is the Mississippi governor’s contest. The Magnolia State has the highest proportion of Black residents of any state — roughly 38 percent — and that bloc has historically supported Democrats in statewide contests in a state where voting is very racially polarized.
This, however, is the first gubernatorial election in which a Jim Crow-era system that required candidates to win both the popular vote and a majority of legislative districts — effectively precluding Black voters from being able to elect a governor — won’t be in use.
Presley, who is white, has poured campaign resources into energizing Black voters under the new system, and their response could be telling of the broader political environment, especially for Biden.
Are Republicans actually voting early?
Trump chased Republican voters away from voting early, whether in-person or by mail, by falsely claiming that anything other than Election Day voting was a vector for fraud.
Most GOP campaign operatives agree that was a major tactical blunder. Republicans running this year have changed their tune, but can they actually alter the way Republican voters see it?
Youngkin tried mightily to get Virginia Republicans to reverse course and “secure your vote” — by voting early. With bus tours and targeted advertising, Youngkin pushed Republicans to vote before Election Day.
Preliminary data showed that a larger share of Republicans were voting early in Old Dominion than in past elections. But we won’t know until after the election whether the campaign was successful in expanding the GOP electorate — or merely getting Republicans who were going to vote on Election Day anyway to do so just a bit earlier.
Pennsylvania, too, is worth keeping an eye on. National and local Republicans pushed a “bank your vote” campaign, with the 2023 judicial contest serving as a dry run for 2024.
Are the suburbs still swinging?
Suburbs across America have been the deciding factor for nearly a decade now. What will that look like Tuesday?
Many of the battleground Virginia races are happening in some of its biggest suburbs — outside of Richmond in Henrico County, or Loudoun County in the greater Washington area. Those areas revolted against Trump and other Republicans during his presidency. And while Youngkin won neither in 2021, closing the gap was a big reason he’s in the governor’s mansion now.
Now, seats in those key suburbs will determine whether Youngkin has unified control of government for the last two years of his term — or Democrats are able to claw back power.
Elsewhere, Kentucky’s Beshear needs to maintain the suburban margins that he saw four years ago to have a chance. One place to look: Kenton County, a suburban Cincinnati county that was the largest Trump/Beshear county.
And at the same time, many Democrats are watching Beshear and Presley to see whether they can