2023 elections show the South is still contested territory

The 2023 elections are almost over — just a handful of races are still being decided — and the consensus is that Democrats have plenty of reasons to celebrate. Despite President Biden’s flagging popularity, Democrats scored key wins in the Virginia General Assembly, Ohio ballot measures supporting abortion and marijuana, and a high-profile governor’s race in Kentucky.

The bigger picture, of course, is more complicated. Gov. Andy Beshear’s victory in Kentucky is notable because he won in an overwhelmingly pro-Trump state, where every other Democrat running for state office lost this year. The Democrats’ ability to win majorities in the Virginia House and Senate this year stands out because those are now the only two legislative chambers in the South not under Republican control. Democratic success stories are  newsworthy because they are exceptions to the rule.

But 2023 did offer a rough blueprint for progressives in the South. Beshear and Virginia Democrats embraced popular discontent with Republican abortion bans, as the Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision continues to echo through state and local politics. Beshear eschewed national partisan politics while pointing to his track record of helping communities on practical issues, such as recovering from natural disasters.

Perhaps most importantly, 2023 affirmed a political truism: When you compete, you can win — or at least come close. Together, Virginia’s legislative contests and the gubernatorial races in Kentucky and Mississippi — where the Democrat lost by under four points — attracted more than $200 million in political spending, fueling competitive races in areas often written off as conservative strongholds.

Below is a rundown of key Southern elections and issues on the ballot that Facing South followed in 2023.

Virginia General Assembly

One of the brightest spots for progressives in 2023 was the Virginia General Assembly, where Democrats reclaimed the House, and maintained a majority in the Senate.

Of the 26 legislative chambers in Southern states, Republicans controlled all but one coming into this year’s elections: the Virginia Senate. After decades of relative competitiveness, Southern legislatures shifted to Republican control beginning in 2010. That gave conservatives control over the redistricting process, and GOP lawmakers moved swiftly to draw favorable maps that further cemented their dominance.

Before the 2023 elections, Republicans held 69% of Southern state senate seats, and 69% of those in state house chambers, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

In Virginia, Democrats won both legislative chambers in 2019, then lost the state House and the governorship in 2021. Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Republicans were clear about their goals for 2023: win back the Senate and gain a trifecta that would allow them to push through a conservative policy agenda, including a ban on abortion after 15 weeks.

The prospect of GOP abortion limits likely ended up helping Democrats: A poll released before the elections found 54% of likely Virginia voters opposed or strongly opposed the 15-week ban.

All of the state’s 40 Senate seats and 100 House seats were up for grabs, with highly competitive races around Hampton Roads and the suburbs of Richmond and Washington. New legislative maps drawn after the 2020 census were largely viewed as balanced. The races also attracted vast sums of money: By the time the final campaign finance reports were filed at the end of October, Democratic legislative candidates had raised $91 million, and Republicans $68 million — a figure that doesn’t include spending by super PACs and other outside groups, or money raised in November.

In the end, Democrats secured a 21-19 majority in the Senate, and flipped five seats in the House to give them a 51-49 majority in the lower chamber.

Not only will Democrats be able to block Gov. Youngkin's right-wing agenda for the remaining two years of his term (likely undermining his presidential ambitions)if Democrats hold their majorities next cycle, they could move to pass progressive constitutional amendments. Under Virginia law, if the legislature passes a proposed amendment in two sessions, with one election in between, the initiative goes to the ballot for voters to decide.

“Our victory on Tuesday allows us to work with these majorities to advance a constitutional amendment that will be on Virginia’s ballot in 2026 when we keep an abortion-rights majority in 2025,” said Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.

While the Democrats’ Virginia victories in a tough election year were a major feat, the 2023 elections saw one possible cause for concern: low voter enthusiasm and turnout. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, about 39% of registered voters cast a ballot in 2023. This was down from the 42% that cast ballots the last time Virginia had legislative-only elections in 2019, and the lowest turnout since 2015, according to Virginia Department of Elections data.

Kentucky Governor

There were three Southern governor’s races in 2023. For Democrats, one looked winnable, another was a long shot, and the last didn’t look promising at all.

The winnable race was in Kentucky, where incumbent Democrat Andy Beshear hoped to improve on his narrow 5,086-vote victory in 2019 and defeat Trump-endorsed Republican and Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

Beshear had a lot going for him: The son of a popular previous Kentucky governor, Beshear had among the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country, with almost nine out of 10 Democrats and nearly half of Republicans saying in a Morning Consult poll earlier this year that they approved of his job performance, in part due to his response to devastating natural disasters. Some of Beshear's biggest gains compared to his 2019 race were in southeastern coalfield counties rocked by flooding last year.

But it was far from certain that Beshear could overcome the GOP’s strength in Kentucky, a state President Trump won by more than 25 points. Yet Beshear won on an unapologetically progressive platform that included supporting unions, defending the right to abortion, and vetoing anti-trans legislation that the Republican legislature had passed this spring. More than $44 million was poured into the candidates' campaigns, and an additional $45 million was spent by outside groups, the bulk of them attacking the Democratic incumbent.

While other Democrats running for state office weren’t able to replicate Beshear’s success — he outperformed his party compatriots by more than 20 points — political scientist D. Stephen Voss, a professor at the University of Kentucky believes Beshear’s pragmatic, kitchen-table progressivism can be a template for other Democrats in the state.

“The Beshear coalition is meaningful, and has the potential to be durable if the Kentucky Democratic Party fields the sort of candidates who can tap into it,” Voss argued in The Kentucky Lantern. “Replicate Beshear’s pattern of support, and Democrats not only will win statewide offices, they’ll approach parity in the statehouse.”

As with Virginia, turnout was below average in Kentucky: While about 44% of registered voters cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election in 2019, the 2023 figure was about 38%.

Mississippi and Louisiana Governors

The long shot among governor’s races for Democrats was Mississippi. Like Kentucky, Mississippi has been a deep-red state in presidential politics; Trump won Mississippi by more than 16 points in 2020. Unlike Kentucky, Democratic candidate Brandon Presley — yes, Elvis’ cousin — didn’t have the advantage of incumbency and his own record, making him more vulnerable to being linked to President Biden and national Democrats.

While the deck was stacked against Democrats, Mississippi was close for two reasons. The first is that Republican Gov. Tate Reeves is deeply unpopular. While Reeves wasn’t directly involved, a scandal enveloped the previous GOP governors’ administration involving the misappropriation of $77 million in federal funds earmarked for families in poverty that instead went to political operatives and pet projects; Reeves slowed the investigation into the debacle.

The race was also competitive because Democrats invested in it. In a contest that attracted $14.5 million in spending by late October, just $500,000 separated the amount raised by Presley and Reeves. That allowed the Democrats to invest in mobilizing voters, especially Black voters in a state that is more than 40% African American. Add in Presley’s name recognition and small-town charm — he was a member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission in the northern town of Nettleton — and Democrats brought the race to a near-tie in pre-election polls.

Ultimately, disaffected Republicans came back to Reeves, but the GOP incumbent only ended up winning by four points — a testament to what can be accomplished when Democrats invest and compete. Democrats ran up high Black turnout and performed as strongly as could be expected among whites in a state where 90% of them vote Republican.

“The best Black turnout anyone could have expected, the best margins with Black voters in recent history, and barely-believable white margins,” is how election analyst Lakshya Jain of the website Split-Ticket described the Mississippi Democrats’ performance in a post on X (formerly Twitter). “An R+4 loss in Mississippi is the stuff of legend.”

In Louisiana, the situation for Democrats in 2023 appeared grim. Centrist Democrat John Bel Edwards was term limited, and couldn’t seek a third term in office. Republicans largely coalesced around state Attorney General Jeff Landry, although under Louisiana’s jungle primary system, Landry faced 14 other candidates in the October 14th gubernatorial primary, including seven other Republicans. The leading Democratic candidate was Shawn Wilson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

In the red-trending state, Democrats hoped the sheer number of Republican candidates might split the vote enough to give Wilson a chance to take Landry to a run-off. But Landry secured more than 51% of the vote, clinching the race.

Unlike Kentucky and Mississippi, Democrats didn’t invest in their candidate in Louisiana: Campaign spending figures released the day before the October 14 primary revealed $26 million had been spent by Republican candidates, and only $1 million by Democrats. The lack of investment and competition contributed to low turnout, with just 36% of registered voters going to the polls in October, including less than 29% of Black voters. In the last gubernatorial election in 2019, turnout was more than 51%.

With both state legislative chambers likely to stay Republican supermajorities — runoffs were held November 18 — governor-elect Landry is poised to push a staunch conservative agenda with the GOP’s state trifecta. This includes resuming the death penalty after a 13-year pause; 56 people currently sit on death row. Landry has also signaled he intends to hold firm on his pledge to withhold millions in funding for water projects in New Orleans due to the city government’s refusal to prosecute women who have abortions – even as the city’s water system is in crisis due to saltwater intrusion and backed-up repairs.

Other elections in the South

A few other notable races Facing South was following this cycle:

Mayors: In Houston, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee battled state Sen. John Whitmire to a runoff in December. Whitmire, who had an almost seven-point lead over Lee in the primary, also has more money and endorsements. Orlando, Florida’s Democratic incumbent Buddy Dyer won what he says was his last race for mayor, defeating a former Republican, a retired police captain, and a fitness trainer, and Charlotte, North Carolina mayor Vi Lyles was also re-elected. Durham, N.C. saw the election of city council member Leo Williams, who was endorsed by the city’s leading progressive PACs. In September, progressive city council member Freddie O’Connell won the Nashville, Tennessee mayoral race, and in May, Democrat Donna Deegan won in Jacksonville, Florida, where a Republican had previously been mayor.

Sheriffs: Progressives claimed victory in the ouster of Scott Jenkins, a sheriff in Culpeper, Virginia who gained notoriety for giving out deputy badges in exchange for campaign contributions. The progressive group Sheriffs for Trusting Communities, which opposes far-right sheriffs and supports those who embrace criminal justice reform, argued in an email that Jenkins also “played a central role in terrorizing his community and organizing extremist sheriffs across the country,” including taking a leading role in anti-immigrant groups. Sheriffs for Trusting Communities also lauded the victory of farmer and retired Marine Corps officer Jason Smith in Washington Parish, Louisiana, who defeated a conservative incumbent who pledged to “keep the jails full.” However, an effort to replace East Baton Rouge Parish’s sheriff Sid Gautreaux – who has overseen one of the state’s most notorious jails that at one point had a death rate twice the national average – fell short.

Ballot Measures: Louisiana and Texas had a combined 22 amendments to their state constitutions on the ballot, with most passing. Seven of Louisiana’s eight proposed measures passed, including a ban on private funding of elections, a key right-wing agenda item in recent years. 13 of Texas’ 14 propositions were approved by voters, including $18 billion in property tax cuts and a $1.5 billion broadband access package.