While most of the political world has its eyes on next year’s presidential race, voters in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi will head to the polls this fall to pick their next governor. Former President Donald Trump carried all three states by double digits in 2020, but Democrats are hopeful they can retain control of the governor’s mansion in Kentucky while scoring an upset win in Mississippi.
Here’s a guide to the big three races for governor in 2023.
A quick glance at recent statewide election results in the Bluegrass State would give the sense that Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear may be in trouble in November: Republican Sen. Rand Paul won reelection by a margin of 23% in 2022, and Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell won by 19 points in 2020, the year Trump cruised to a 26-point victory in the state.
Although Kentucky is deep red in federal elections, Beshear isn’t just popular — he’s the most popular Democratic governor in the entire country, according to a January poll from Morning Consult. His approval rating stands at 60% to just 34% disapproval, with support from 87% of Democrats, 49% of independents and even 46% of Republicans.
A former state attorney general and the son of a former two-term governor, Beshear scraped out a win in 2019 by 4,000 votes, or 0.4% of the final margin, against the incumbent, Republican Matt Bevin, who was deeply unpopular. Beshear’s time in office has coincided with a series of natural disasters that he’s had to address, including the tornadoes in the west of the state in 2021 and the deadly flooding in the east last year.
During his State of the Commonwealth address in January, Beshear noted these tragedies but praised the state’s economic development and low unemployment rate.
Republicans are lining up to face the governor, led by Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a protégé of McConnell. Cameron, who is Black, has faced scrutiny for what critics say is a mishandling of the case of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by Louisville police in 2020.
Polling has shown Cameron with a lead over a number of competitors, who include Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, State Auditor Mike Harmon and Kelly Craft, a former ambassador to the United Nations under Trump and the wife of a billionaire coal magnate.
The primary is set for May 16, with the winner sure to do their best to tie Beshear to the national Democratic Party and to President Biden, whose approval rating in the state is extremely low. January polling showed Cameron doing better than his Republican opponents in a matchup with Beshear, but still trailing by 9 points. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as Lean Democrat, favoring Beshear but expecting a tough campaign.
Republicans have another pickup opportunity here, with conservative Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards term-limited out of office in a state where Trump won 59% of the vote in 2020 and Republican Sen. John Kennedy won 62% in his November reelection bid.
GOP candidates have piled into the race, including Attorney General Jeff Landry, Treasurer John Schroder, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt and state Rep. Richard Nelson. Landry has an early fundraising lead and also received an unusually early endorsement from the state party. Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser said in January that he would seek reelection to his current office instead of vying for the state’s top job.
Edwards has thrown his support behind Shawn Wilson, who has served two terms as the state’s transportation secretary and announced he will be stepping down from that role on March 4. Wilson has not formally launched his campaign but told USA Today, "It's important for both parties to have representation at the top of the ticket to engage voters across the state and across party lines.”
"He's absolutely capable, eminently qualified and would do a great job," Edwards said of Wilson on his radio show last month. "We would be very well served to have Shawn Wilson as our next governor."
The Democratic state party chairwoman, Katie Bernhardt, said last month that she won’t be running for governor, after floating that the possibility that she might. Hunter Lundy, a lawyer who has described himself as both a Christian conservative and a member of the “radical middle,” has entered the race as an independent. The filing deadline for the race isn’t until August, giving potential candidates months to formally enter.
The Louisiana system differs from traditional gubernatorial elections. Every candidate of every party affiliation will take part in an October primary. Any candidate who receives a majority of the vote wins the office. Absent a clear majority, the top two candidates advance to a November election. Cook Political Report rates the race as Lean Republican.
Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, won four years ago by defeating Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood by 6 points. Reeves has been a fixture in the state’s government, previously serving two terms as both lieutenant governor and treasurer, but his time in the governor’s mansion has been troubled.
Polling has shown that voters are particularly displeased about a scandal in which at least $77 million in welfare funds was misappropriated to other projects, including benefits for those friendly with Reeves and former Gov. Phil Bryant. Reeves and Bryant both texted with former NFL quarterback Brett Favre about using the welfare funds to build a volleyball arena.
Reeves said last year that “the State of Mississippi is going to go after every dollar that was wrongfully spent,” adding, “There are a lot of other state agencies, and certainly federal entities, that are looking at the criminal side of things, and we are cooperative in that regard because our responsibility and our goal are to recover every single dollar that was wrongfully spent, and we are going to be aggressive in doing so.”
The state also has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates and one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.
With Reeves in office, the state’s capital and largest city, Jackson, has undergone a water crisis, with Reeves blaming the city’s government, and its Democratic mayor calling the governor’s handling “racist” and “paternalistic.”
The top Democratic challenger to Reeves is Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a former small-town mayor and second cousin of Elvis Presley. Launching his campaign in January, Presley highlighted a career of public service and blasted Reeves for his role in the welfare scandal.
“We’ve got a state filled with good people but horrible politicians — and that includes our governor,” Presley said in a video announcing his run. “Tate Reeves is a man with zero conviction and maximum corruption. He looks out for himself and his rich friends instead of the people that put him into office. And he’s been caught in the middle of the largest public corruption scandal in state history.”
In January, a Mississippi Today/Siena College poll found that only 33% of residents said they’d vote to reelect Reeves to a second term. (The positive news for him in that survey is that his approval rating is slightly above water, at +3%.)
Two surveys have shown the race between Reeves and Presley within the margin of error. In a potential sign that Reeves is feeling some pressure to moderate, on Sunday he abandoned his long-standing opposition to providing a full year of postpartum Medicaid coverage to mothers, saying he now supported it.
Reeves will not have to deal with a primary challenge from former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., who came within 10 points of the nomination four years ago but said in January he wasn’t running. But Dr. John Witcher, who leads a group opposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates, is taking on Reeves in the primary. The incumbent has the resources to survive a competitive campaign, as he loaned his 2019 campaign more than $1 million and outspent his general election opponent 2 to 1.
The state’s primaries are set for August. While early polling shows a tight contest, the Cook Political Report remains bullish on Reeves’s chances, rating the race as Likely Republican.