Opinion: Democrats face a key Election Day test in deep red states

Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. He is the author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

Why should you care about Tuesday’s elections in Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia?

Because the results of these key 2023 races will tell us a lot about the strategy, tactics and ground game before the everything-at-stake presidential election of 2024. The storylines to watch include abortion, disinformation, dirty money and a test of that elusive but essential creature known as the red state Democrat.

John Avlon - CNN
John Avlon - CNN

Let’s start with the Buckeye State, where abortion rights are on the ballot. You probably know that there’s been a backlash since the Supreme Court overturned the right to an abortion. In each of the seven states that have tried to restrict abortion rights via ballot initiative since the Dobbs decision in 2022, the pro-choice forces have won — including in deep red Montana, Kansas and Kentucky.

This week’s ballot initiative in Ohio, known as Issue 1, would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. The battle has a backstory: Republicans in the state legislature tried to sneak through a mid-summer change to make it harder to pass state constitutional amendments. They failed amid surprisingly high turnout — it seemed that citizens didn’t want to have their voice diluted. But that was just the pregame to this vote.

There have been controversies over the purging of 26,000 people from the voter rolls close to the voter registration deadline. There’s also been an avalanche of misinformation regarding what the ballot initiative would allow — some of it coming from the official Republican-controlled Ohio Senate — such as the claim from one senator that the measure would permit “dismemberment of fully conscious children” if voters give the go-ahead.

In fact, the amendment would allow Ohio to restrict abortions once a fetus is viable outside the womb, with exceptions for the life and health of the woman. Ohio has become reliably red in presidential elections, but early voting is exceeding expectations in Buckeye blue counties, which would track with recent results. By the way, marijuana legalization is also on the ballot, so we’ll see if legal pot and abortion rights can prevail even in the heartland.

Next door in Kentucky, there’s a governor’s race between incumbent Democrat Andy Beshear and his Republican challenger Daniel Cameron, the state attorney general. Kentucky is deep red in presidential races and in its congressional delegation. It is home to Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell and libertarian scion Sen. Rand Paul.

But in the governor’s mansion, Beshear has proven a popular and effective red state Democrat, taking the seat held by his father more than a decade ago. No less a political expert than James Carville has called him one of the Democratic Party’s most exciting rising stars. Beshear is also the rare red state Democrat who can connect with rural voters — something Democrats desperately need more of.

Cameron, for his part, is a McConnell protégé and the rare Black Republican running for governor with a serious shot. So whoever prevails in this campaign will find themselves on a shortlist of future presidential candidates. Is that enough drama to get your attention?

Meanwhile in Mississippi, there’s another governor’s race that The Washington Post is calling the most competitive in 20 years. Republicans usually run away with statewide races in the Deep South, but incumbent Tate Reeves hasn’t proved as Teflon as recent governors, like the iconic Haley Barbour.

Reeves has taken flak for a massive multi-million-dollar welfare scandal in which federal funds intended for the state’s poorest residents ended up in the pockets of wealthy cronies.

Reeves, who has denied any wrongdoing, says that he was just the lieutenant governor at the time and now pledges that the state will “go after every dollar that was wrongfully spent.”

That’s not all: Intrepid reporters at Mississippi Today found that Reeves’ donors received $1.4 billion in state contracts and grants.

Despite this clear opening, the race is far from a sure thing for Democrats, who are fielding a distant relative of Elvis Presley — a former mayor and commissioner of public service named Brandon Presley. Presley is exhibiting the red state Democrats’ refusal to get drawn into progressive culture war positions, instead highlighting his pro-life and pro-gun bona fides, while focusing more on kitchen table economic issues, calling for investment to improve the quality of life and a crackdown on corruption.

But Democrats don’t have much of a ground game in Mississippi and, when it comes to the legislature, the state is so weighted toward safe seats that more than 80% of the state’s legislative races are basically uncontested by another party this year — which is a scandal of a different kind.

Fast forward to Virginia, where the state legislature is up for grabs. Why does this matter? Listen to my CNN colleague, Harry Enten: “Election results for the Virginia Legislature over the past few cycles have been shown to correlate with what happens in the following year’s national elections. So, a good showing for either party Tuesday would bode well for that party next year.”

Republican Gov. Glenn Younkin is trying to solidify his legacy with a 15-week abortion ban — far longer than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ six-week ban. The Virginia GOP is selling his policy with an ad that claims “there is no ban” involved, just a “limit” with a few narrow exceptions — a Jedi mind-trick reframing of the Republican position on abortion.

That’s a packed docket in four off-cycle state races, full of drama that offers insight into next year’s high-stakes presidential election, where the future of democracy itself will be on the ballot. As always, vote like your country depends on it.

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