Why Democrats Won in Kentucky but Came up Short in Mississippi
Last week, Democrats enjoyed a wave of success in most of the top electoral contests.
Gov. Andy Beshear won reelection, but Brandon Presley lost the Mississippi governor’s race.
It’s a tale of two states: both are conservative, but one had a stronger Republican tilt.
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Democrats last week were victorious in high-stakes elections across the United States, winning the Kentucky gubernatorial election, flipping the Virginia House of Delegates and assuming full control of that state’s legislature, and winning a key referendum in Ohio that will now enshrine abortion access into its constitution.
But in Mississippi, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves was reelected to a second term over Democratic nominee Brandon Presley by roughly 4.4 points, a margin that was relatively close for the conservative state. Presley clearly made some headway, even if it wasn’t enough to carry the day.
Kentucky is also a conservative Southern state where voters generally back Republicans in most statewide races, yet Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear was reelected to a second term over GOP state Attorney General Daniel Cameron by five points.
So why did the two states diverge in their respective gubernatorial contests? Several critical differences moved the needle more heavily for Beshear than Presley.
An abortion breakthrough
After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, abortion rights have become a potent political issue for Democrats, while GOP lawmakers have struggled to counter their overwhelming opposition to abortion with a position that’s palatable to a broad segment of voters.
In Kentucky, Beshear ran an ad featuring Hadley Duvall, a young woman who had been raped by her stepfather at age 12. During the campaign, Duvall called out Cameron for his support of a highly restrictive abortion ban that did not include exceptions for rape or incest. The attorney general later indicated that he’d back exceptions “if the courts made us change that law,” but many voters have been miffed by mainstream GOP messaging on an issue that can be incredibly nuanced, even among some Republican voters.
Beshear effectively painted the state’s near-total abortion ban as “extreme” in the eyes of many voters.
But in Mississippi, the abortion debate was essentially neutralized, as both Reeves and Presley are anti-abortion. While Democratic enthusiasm for Beshear may have been amplified over his support for exceptions to the Kentucky law, the opposite was true of Presley’s candidacy, as Mississippi Democrats were likely to cite Medicaid expansion and increased education funding as core issues.
Running up the margins
Beshear made significant inroads in rural and suburban communities across Kentucky, but it was the state’s population centers that powered his victory over Cameron.
In Louisville, which is consolidated with Jefferson County, Beshear won 70% of the vote. Beshear secured a nearly 103,000-vote margin in Jefferson County alone.
Lexington, the state’s second-most populous city, is consolidated with Fayette County and in recent years has also produced sizable margins for Democratic candidates. Beshear won Fayette County 72% to 28%, a huge 44-point edge that netted him roughly 45,000 more votes than Cameron.
Banking those sorts of numbers was helpful for Beshear, as he ran competitively across the state, even winning several counties that former President Donald Trump carried by large margins in 2020.
In Mississippi, Presley relied more on an urban-rural coalition. He campaigned in suburban areas as well, but the state’s suburban voters tend to be more conservative than those in other parts of the country, especially in northern Mississippi and near the Gulf Coast.
While Presley performed strongly in cities like Jackson and many of the rural counties in the Delta, the margins were not as massive as those in urban Kentucky due to the smaller population sizes.
In Hinds County, home of the state capital of Jackson, Presley beat Reeves 79% to 20%. But Presley’s 59-point advantage in Hinds County only netted him about 38,000 votes, which wasn’t nearly enough to overcome Reeves’ margins in rural and suburban counties across much of the state.
A tale of two names
Beshear is from a storied Democratic family in Kentucky politics. His father is former Gov. Steve Beshear, who led the state from 2007 to 2015. Similar to the younger Beshear, the elder Beshear also served as a Kentucky attorney general.
Both father and son have carved out a reputation as political moderates in a state that has not been receptive to the national Democratic brand since the 1990s.
So voters in Kentucky are well-accustomed to the Beshear name, and the elder Beshear often enjoyed high marks from voters, even as he neared the end of his second and final gubernatorial term.
Presley’s candidacy immediately turned heads, as he is a second cousin of the late singer Elvis Presley, but he never focused on his surname to garner votes.
The Presley name is golden in music, but the family isn’t known for its ventures into elected politics. Meanwhile, Beshear is much more likely to have benefited from his surname among some voters given his family’s history in Kentucky.
And now he’ll have four more years in the Governor’s Mansion.