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A Rare Successful Red State Democrat

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear looks more likely than not to win re-election. Meanwhile, Louisiana Democrats failed to field candidates in many districts for state House and Senate, Oklahoma's Republican attorney general files a lawsuit to block a publicly funded religious charter school and more.

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Kentucky gov. Andy Beshear
(John Sommers II/Getty Images/TNS)
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A Rare Successful Red State Democrat: Everyone knows there are big advantages to incumbency. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear is proving the point. A Democrat running for re-election in an otherwise solidly Republican state, Beshear looks more likely than not to win re-election, thanks to the various factors that can help an incumbent – a strong economy, convincing performances during moments of crisis and commanding a high-enough personal profile to withstand attacks linking him to national Democrats.

The polls all indicate that Beshear is running ahead of his Republican opponent, state Attorney General Daniel Cameron. Beshear’s purported leads vary considerably, however, and people in Kentucky are especially wary of polls because they were so wrong about the outcome of the governor’s race eight years ago. Still, they point to a source of Beshear’s strength – namely, his relative popularity in the eastern and western counties of the state.

Those regions are home to voters who are conservative, but not especially partisan, says Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky. Beshear has earned political points in those places thanks to his handling of natural disasters – a deadly tornado that ripped across much of western Kentucky at the end of 2021 and catastrophic flooding in eastern Kentucky last year. “Beshear’s role as the face of government relief efforts after weather disasters helped him in those normally hostile regions,” Voss says. “Cameron requires fairly massive landslide victories in those counties to compensate for Beshear’s advantages in the cities.”

While Beshear has homegrown appeal – not just dealing with local disasters but being the son of a former governor – Cameron has sought to nationalize the race. During the primary, he relied heavily on his endorsement from former President Donald Trump, who after all carried Kentucky with 62 percent of the vote in 2020. In the general election, Cameron and allied groups have spent tens of millions of dollars seeking to link Beshear with President Biden. But Beshear has been able to tout the strength of the commonwealth’s economy – bragging about “an economic win streak” that’s “the envy of the nation.” That may be hyperbole, but it’s a plausible enough claim to help the incumbent.

The pair are trading attacks on other issues. Cameron says he wants to abolish the personal income tax, which Beshear calls irresponsible. Beshear has attacked Cameron for refusing to say whether he favors offering an exception to the state’s near-total ban on abortion for victims of rape and incest, although Cameron says he would sign such a bill if it reached his desk. Cameron says Beshear overreached with health restrictions at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – and indeed helped strip the governor of emergency powers in his role as AG – but shutdowns may not be a fresh enough memory to have sufficient resonance at this point.

The Republican legislative majorities can override the governor in Kentucky with simple majorities. That means a lot of bills that Beshear wouldn’t sign – including one blocking treatments for transgender minors and another limiting instruction about race in public schools – have become law anyway.

That must be frustrating for Beshear, but could be lucky for him politically. Kentuckians who want conservative policies are seeing them enacted even under a Democratic governor, one who seems to perform well during emergencies and gets to take credit for a healthy economy. All of that may well add up to a second term for Beshear.

a yard sign that says "re-elect Mandie Landry"
New Orleans Democrat Mandie Landry did not draw a Republican opponent, so she's already won re-election to the Louisiana House. (Alan Greenblatt/Governing)

When There’s No Competition at All: There was never any doubt that Republicans would hold onto their majorities in the Louisiana House and Senate this year. But the GOP managed to win continued control in both chambers before a single ballot was cast. That’s because Democrats failed even to field candidates in a majority of districts.

Louisiana is not an outlier. Last year, majority control of 22 chambers was guaranteed simply through candidate filings, or lack thereof, with the GOP guaranteed veto-proof majorities in 13 chambers. Voters in hundreds of districts effectively had no choice. In most recent election cycles, the share of legislative seats that fail to attract candidates from both major parties has been alarmingly high – in the neighborhood of 40 percent per cycle.

This November, the percentage of uncontested seats is even higher. In a majority of races – 55 percent – one party or the other hasn’t bothered running a candidate. (Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia are also holding legislative elections next month.) “The number of uncontested seats is a troubling but also too common phenomenon,” says Steven Rogers, a political scientist at St. Louis University. “Across the country, a third of state legislative incumbents regularly do not face a primary or general election challenger.”

Still, Tim Storey, the CEO of the National Conference of State Legislatures, says he’s not terribly troubled by the number of uncontested seats. Given strong partisan divisions and the way many people choose to live in like-minded communities, he says, it’s not terribly surprising that many districts get written off altogether. “When I see that parties aren’t even putting up a token opponent, part of me thinks that’s smart, save your resources,” Storey says.

A bigger question than individual districts being left uncontested, he cautions, is entire chambers becoming uncompetitive. Throughout the 20th century, roughly a dozen chambers on average changed partisan control during each election cycle. That’s no longer the case. Last year, only four chambers flipped. In 2020, there were only two. Nowadays, it’s much more likely that a legislature will maintain veto-proof majorities – currently, there are 29 states where both chambers are controlled by veto-proof majorities of the same party – than that it will flip in the next election.

This dynamic won’t change in 2024. Typically, the second election cycle following redistricting is the most stable. Incumbents are snugly settled into districts that have not yet undergone much demographic change. That means voters, at the legislative level at least, will have precious few real opportunities to throw the bums out.

Odds and Ends: Speaking of redistricting, Republicans in North Carolina are about to boost their party’s chances to retain control of the U.S. House next year. Their initial congressional map was rejected by the state Supreme Court as a partisan gerrymander, setting up a much-watched case at the U.S. Supreme Court. That case became moot when a new Republican majority on North Carolina’s court gave legislators a green light to try again back in April. They’ve now done just that.

This week, the Legislature approved a new congressional map that’s expected to shift the state’s House delegation from a 7-7 partisan tie to one that all but guarantees the GOP will win 10 seats, with a strong shot at an 11th …

If I told you someone had filed a lawsuit to block Oklahoma from sponsoring the nation’s first publicly funded religious charter school, you’d probably guess it was a Democrat or a teachers union or maybe the ACLU. And, in fact, the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Education Law Center did file such a suit back in August.

But now Gentner Drummond, Oklahoma’s Republican attorney general, has filed suit as well, claiming that direct public funding for a sectarian school violates both the state and U.S. constitutions. “There is no religious freedom in compelling Oklahomans to fund religions that may violate their own deeply held beliefs,” Drummond wrote …

Alaska hasn’t been a state all that long. Its admission into the Union, just months before Hawaii, occurred in 1959, within living memory for many Americans. But now a connection to that moment has been broken.

Vic Fischer, who served in Alaska’s last territorial legislature and then in the state Senate during the 1980s, died on Sunday. He was the final surviving delegate to the state constitutional convention of 1955-56. “Participating in the constitutional convention was a fabulous way of being part of democracy and state building,” he said in 2015.

Fischer opposed a ballot measure last year to call a new constitutional convention, which was overwhelmingly defeated. He was 99.

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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