Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How to Thrive in Hostile Partisan Terrain

Democrat Andy Beshear wins re-election in a state that otherwise elects only Republicans to statewide office, the particular challenges facing Black women mayors and other election fallout.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, left, and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, left, and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS)
Editor's Note: this article is a part of Governing's Inside Politics newsletter. Sign up here.

How to Thrive in Hostile Partisan Terrain: Running for a second term as Kentucky governor, Andy Beshear improved on his performance from four years ago, when he ousted an unpopular incumbent, Matt Bevin. So how was a Democrat able to win a second term in Kentucky – a state that otherwise elects only Republicans to statewide office – when the most recent Republican governor was not?

One of Beshear’s strengths, paradoxically, was institutional weakness. The GOP majorities in the Legislature can override him with simple majority votes. Beshear could thus veto bills – such as those restricting transgender rights – but they passed into law anyway, which kept conservative voters from getting grumpy. And Beshear has proven good at the less partisan, more managerial aspects of the job, including response to disasters. “Whether it was tornados in the western part of the state or flooding in the eastern part or the state, or his daily COVID briefings, people saw Beshear in their living rooms and he became ‘Andy,’” says Dewey Clayton, a University of Louisville political scientist.

Some special circumstances may have been at play, but what worked for Beshear has worked for other governors who are a seeming mismatch politically with their states. Some of the most popular governors in the country in recent years have been Northeastern Republicans presiding over otherwise blue or purple states, including Phil Scott of Vermont and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, as well as former governors such as Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. Voters sometimes like a governor who can act as a brake on the legislature – and vice versa. “They differentiate themselves from national Democrats,” says Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University, referring to Laura Kelly and recent Kansas Democratic governors. “You won’t hear a word about Hakeem Jeffries or President Biden.”

It's not just about posing as moderate – it helps actually to be a moderate. Kelly doesn’t always get along with the GOP legislative majorities, but she breaks from her own party occasionally on environmental or immigration-related issues. Such governors need to establish their own brands, says Democratic strategist Jared Leopold. In that regard, he suggests, it hasn’t hurt Beshear or Sununu that their fathers also served before them as governors.

But being governor is a prominent enough job that it’s still possible to establish an identity that’s distinct from the national party in ways that have become nearly impossible at the legislative or congressional level. Actually running a state – including responding to disasters – allows governors like Beshear the chance to demonstrate to residents that they have their best interests at heart, even if they fly a different party’s colors.

“Executive races are leadership elections and can sometimes outweigh the very heavy partisan gravitational pull that exists in American politics today,” Leopold says. “If people know you and don’t have a reason to fire you, it’s easier to get re-elected than it is to get elected the first time.”
Vi Lyles, Charlotte's first female Black mayor.
Vi Lyles, Charlotte's first female Black mayor. (Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
The Particular Challenges Facing Black Women Mayors: Cherelle Parker’s election on Tuesday means she’ll be the first of Philadelphia’s 100 mayors to be a woman – meaning, of course, that she’ll also be the city’s first Black woman mayor. A number of major cities currently have their first Black women mayors, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis and New Orleans. Some are doing well – Vi Lyles was elected to her fourth two-year term in Charlotte on Tuesday – but several have struggled.

Lori Lightfoot not only lost her bid for a second term as Chicago mayor earlier this year but failed to make the runoff. Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms called it quits rather than even trying to run for a second term in 2021. San Francisco Mayor London Breed has already drawn serious and well-funded challengers and will start out as an underdog when she runs again next year. In St. Louis, Tishaura Jones’ approval rating dropped into the low 30s earlier this year.

Every mayor and every city is different, but these women do have some things in common. First of all, there happened to be a spate of Black women first elected as mayor just before many things started to go wrong in cities. Lots of mayors in general are unpopular now due to half-empty downtowns and problems with drug addiction, homelessness and violent crime. San Francisco, for example, has become the poster child for vacant downtowns, while Jones recently had an encampment of homeless individuals removed from the grounds of city hall itself.

In this regard, it’s something of a repeat of the era a half-century ago, when Black men were first elected as mayors in number and inherited the “hollow prize” of cities that had been emptied out by white flight and suburban growth. “Black mayors are usually held to higher standards, especially when it’s the first Black mayor,” says Sharon D. Wright Austin, the editor of the recent book Political Black Girl Magic: The Elections and Governance of Black Female Mayors.

Black women mayors are often unseated by men running on “law and order” platforms, says Wright Austin, a political scientist at the University of Florida. Female politicians still have to deal with people who are uncomfortable with women being in positions of power, she says, not only within city hall but in the business community.

Cherelle Parker is going to have to deal not only with the problems that would bedevil any mayor of Philadelphia, including elevated rates of poverty, opioid addiction and violent crime, but racism and sexism as well. “It’s the intersection of those stereotypes,” says Andrea Benjamin, an expert on urban politics at the University of Oklahoma. “Because it’s a Black woman, you think they’re aggressive or angry all the time. They can’t win.”

Other Election Fallout: Democratic members of the Michigan House did well on Tuesday but cost their party its majority. How did that happen? State Reps. Lori Stone and Kevin Coleman both won election as mayor, meaning their party’s two-seat majority in the state House will evaporate with their switch in offices, at least temporarily …

New Jersey Republicans hoped they could make gains or even take control of a chamber on Tuesday, but that didn’t happen. Democrats expanded their majority in the state Assembly by a half-dozen seats. There was no net change in the state Senate, but Democrats had the special satisfaction of knocking off Ed Durr, who’d unseated state Senate President Steve Sweeney two years ago. In a Facebook post in 2020, Durr had addressed the topic of abortion by writing, “A woman does have a choice! Keep her legs closed” …

It’s rare for a sheriff to lose re-election, but getting indicted certainly helps. That was the case in Culpeper County, Va., where Scott Jenkins sought a fourth term as sheriff, despite facing bribery charges. The new sheriff will be Tim Chilton, a deputy police chief …

I wrote about Tuesday’s election results in general here, rounded up local elections here and looked at what happened with ballot measures here. I also had a conversation about what to watch for in 2024 with Paul Taylor in the latest episode of our podcast, The Future in Context.

Previous Editions
  • 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.
  • A poll found that 63 percent of Americans agree that the two main political parties do "such a poor job" of representing the public that a third party is needed. Meanwhile, a Republican's home state advantage and demanding input into redistricting.
  • Louisiana attorney general Jeff Landry is the clear favorite to succeed Gov. John Bel Edwards, but will he prevail? Meanwhile, there seems to be no end to redistricting fights as prominent cases continue in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico and New York.
  • Virginia is one of just two states in which legislative control is divided between the parties. Then, what makes special elections so special, Pennsylvania Democrats' struggle to maintain control and attorneys general keep getting in trouble.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
From Our Partners