Election Day is finally here! Joining us on "The Downballot" this week to preview all the key contests is Daily Kos Elections editor Jeff Singer, who has the goods on races big and small. Singer kicks us off by getting us up to speed on the battles for governor in Kentucky and Mississippi, two conservative Southern states where it's Republicans who are acting worried. Then it's on to major fights in Pennsylvania, where a vacant state Supreme Court seat is in play, and Ohio, where an amendment to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution is on the ballot.
Singer also highlights a pair of bellwether legislative districts in Virginia, where both chambers are up for grabs, and then it's on to some lesser-known—but still exceedingly important—races further down the ballot. Several are also taking place in swingy Pennsylvania, including a critical contest that will determine who controls election administration in a major county in the Philadelphia suburbs. Democrats will also be hoping for a bounce-back in the county executive's race in Long Island's Suffolk County, an area that swung hard to Republicans last year.
Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
David Beard: Hello and welcome. I'm David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.
David Nir: And I'm David Nir, political director of Daily Kos. The Downballot is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency, from Senate to city Council. Please subscribe to The Downballot on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review.
Beard: The big day is finally upon us. Election Day 2023 is almost here.
Nir: Hell, yeah. We are previewing some of the big, big races coming up on Tuesday night as well as some of the lesser-known affairs. And joining us is Daily Kos Elections Editor Jeff Singer. We have a ton of races to talk about. There are many that we won't even get to talk about, so we’ve got to get moving on this one. Join us right after the musical break and we will get started with our preview.
We have been waiting for this all year and Election Day is finally here. Coming up on Tuesday, our elections for a whole variety of incredibly critical offices that we've been talking about all year on “The Downballot.” And joining us to preview them is Daily Kos Elections Editor Jeff Singer. Jeff, thank you so much for coming back on “The Downballot” once again.
Jeff Singer: Great to be here. Happy Almost Election Day.
Nir: Happy Almost Election Day indeed. And I’m certainly, as I'm sure most of our listeners are, hoping that it will in fact be a happy Election Day for us all. And I think there is some good reason to think that it will be. I want to start with what is probably the most prominent race that is going to be on the ballot anywhere in the country on Tuesday night, and that is the contest for Kentucky governor. And lately, we have been seeing what just reads like some absolutely terrible body language coming from Republicans when it comes to their own assessments of their chances.
Singer: Yes. So one big tell is Republicans have released some polls and they all show the Democratic Governor Andy Beshear ahead. They vary by how much, but we haven't seen a single poll showing the Republican Attorney General, Daniel Cameron, winning. Cameron just added an ad that began “Andy Beshear is a nice-enough guy, but our approach is different.”
And that's sort of the language you probably should have been using a little while ago, not the very end of a campaign. Some analysts have taken that as a sign that Cameron knows his big slash-and-burn, portray Beshear as the avatar of a far-left radical reshaping of Kentucky, approach isn't really working, and he has to sort of try to give people permission to vote against him by saying, "He's nice enough." So not exactly what you'd want if you're the Republicans in the final week of the election.
Nir: Yeah. And I feel like we've seen this kind of approach before in some races. One side says, "Well, our opponent's a perfectly nice guy but..." But I feel like even if Cameron had been going with that message, how is that a winning message?
Singer: I think the idea of it is you're trying to give conservatives who like Andy Beshear permission to vote against him. So you're acknowledging, "Yes, he's nice, but X, Y, and Z." And I think if they tried that earlier, maybe it would've been a bit more effective. But late in the campaign is a bit late to shift strategy.
The approach they did try was to say, "Andy Beshear will indoctrinate your children or let out criminals." And that's a tried and true Republican approach, but I think it has some big limitations, especially when you're talking about an incumbent governor, especially the son of a former governor, Steve Beshear, who was popular. I think a lot of voters who maybe vote Republican for everything else, but they like Andy Beshear, they spent four years with him. They know he's not going to try to do all these things the Republicans say he's been doing or really wants to do.
And I don't know if Cameron really had a lot of good options given that Beshear is really popular. But I think if he had tried the “he's nice but he's wrong” approach instead of “he's the devil,” it could have gone differently. But before I get a little ahead of it myself, I'll just say it's Kentucky, a very red state. Not many polls are out there. Democrats remember eight years ago when Matt Bevin ran a truly terrible campaign but won anyway because it's Kentucky.
No one is saying Daniel Cameron can't win. If he wins, it will be a big upset but it can happen. But I think everyone, even Republicans agree, Andy Beshear is ahead going into the final week.
Nir: The other thing that has struck me as super interesting is that there is an issue that has been a focal point of this race that is absolutely shocking to me in Kentucky, and I'm talking about abortion. Beshear has actually made Cameron's super, super extreme views on abortion a centerpiece. He brought this up in a debate recently. Democrats have been openly talking about it. They've even run ads about it.
And that alone, the fact that Republicans could possibly be on the defensive over abortion in a state as super red and conservative as Kentucky really wows me.
Singer: Yeah. Exactly. It's not something we would've seen before the Dobbs decision, but Kentucky last year had a vote on whether to amend the constitution to explicitly ban or pass a near-total ban on abortion. Voters voted that down. It was close, but they did it in red Kentucky. There are many conservative voters who still like the Republicans, but they think banning abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest goes too far. And those are probably the people Cameron needs to reach; doesn't seem like he's reaching them.
Beard: And of course, one of the themes of both this race and the race that we're about to talk about is Democratic opportunities in very red states, and particularly of course for governorships. We've seen this over the years as ticket-splitting has gone down at the federal level. People want to vote for their party, quote-unquote, "for Senate, for House, and of course for president." But there is still a willingness, as we saw four years ago in Kentucky, to vote for the quote-unquote "other party," if you feel like there's somebody who would do a good job, that they're not too far out of your state's mainstream. We've seen that with northeastern Republicans and we've seen it with Beshear here over the past four years.
Singer: Yeah. Exactly. It's going down but it very much still exists. And someone like Andy Beshear who is popular and comes from a very prominent family, I think he has a bit of an opening that most candidates in the country just don't have. And being a popular incumbent is very helpful too.
Beard: Yes. Now somebody who's trying to follow in Andy Beshear's footsteps but does not have the benefit of being a popular incumbent governor, of course, is Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, who is the Democrat running for the governorship of Mississippi. So tell us about that race and why it's more competitive than your average Mississippi race.
Singer: Yeah. So Mississippi is a very dark-red state. Democrats last won the governorship in 1999. They have no statewide offices, but the Republican Governor Tate Reeves is not super well-liked. Pretty much everyone agrees he's an asshole. That's something that pretty much everyone will agree with.
And Mississippi's one of 10 states that hasn't expanded Medicaid. That's something that Presley has been focusing on. Also, there's been this massive misuse of welfare money scandal that happened during the previous administration of Republican Phil Bryant. But Reeves was lieutenant governor at the time. He has some connections to the players in the scandal, including one Brett Favre who is a Mississippi native.
Beard: Speaking of the players.
Singer: Speaking of the players. So Presley is hoping that he'll have an opening that Democrats just really very rarely get in the deep South. And he's not the only one who's hoping this; the Democratic Governor's Association has given Presley close to $4 million. This race is far more expensive than it was four years ago.
There's real money going in here, but like Kentucky, there's a lot of fog happening here. No one entirely knows what's going on. Polling is limited. A few weeks ago, I think this conversation would've been very different. There were a few public polls that said Reeves is up somewhere in the high single digits, low double digits, about what you'd expect even for an unpopular Republican governor of Mississippi. But the DGA did just release an internal from Public Policy Polling that showed Reeves up just one point.
And the fact that they're backing it up with real money makes us think they're putting their money where their mouth is. They think this is really competitive. This is Mississippi, you'll never go broke betting against the Democrats, but there is real money going on here. This could be interesting on election night. Very worth watching.
Beard: Yeah. Another interesting issue that Presley has been campaigning on has been eliminating the grocery tax, something that we've seen in a lot of other places on a bipartisan basis. The Republicans in Mississippi have seemingly not embraced this probably because they're so obsessed with cutting taxes for rich people and everyone else, they need tax revenue from somewhere. And so, they don't want to cut the grocery tax. Presley has been pushing the elimination of the grocery tax to hopefully appeal to a lot of those lower-income white voters that Democrats won years and years ago and have been overwhelmingly Republican in more recent years.
Singer: Exactly. And we like to see more of these ads because Mississippi, like Georgia, has an unusual law. They say if you don't win a majority of the vote in the general election, you go to a runoff on November 28th, and there is a third candidate on the ballot, independent Gwendolyn Gray. She dropped out a few weeks ago, and endorsed Presley, but she's still on the ballot. So if things are really close and she gets enough support, this could go to round two in a few weeks.
Nir: And we should note that this is the first election cycle that this post-general election runoff, this Georgia-style runoff, would actually be in effect in Mississippi, that until a recent change in the constitution, and prompted by a lawsuit… the state had a completely bizarre, almost Electoral College-like system for resolving races where no candidate got a majority, where a candidate only got a plurality. You also had to win a majority of the vote in a majority of districts in the state House. It was totally cockamamie and also definitely, definitely slanted toward Republicans.
In fact, it was a vestige of the state's 1890 white supremacist constitution. So it's not that I'm going to say a Georgia-style runoff is necessarily going to be great news for Democrats if we get that far. But it's certainly better news than the system it replaced. And yeah, forcing a runoff in Mississippi, that would really be a hell of a thing.
Beard: Now one race that's probably been a little bit under the radar for people outside of the state is in Pennsylvania where they have a Supreme Court election. Right now they have four Democrats and two Republicans on the court with one vacancy because a Democratic justice passed away. So this race is to fill that seat. Obviously, it's very important to keep a majority on the seat. Obviously, it's very important to keep a majority on the state Supreme Court here. That's not up right now, but obviously five to two is a lot better than four to three for Democrats with more Supreme Court races coming up in future years. So tell us how that race is shaping up.
Singer: So this is a statewide race between the Democrat, Dan McCaffrey, and the Republican, Carolyn Carluccio. They're both judges and there's been very little polling. One poll showed McCaffrey up by six, but it was a while ago. And Supreme Court races are pretty hard to poll because, while they're so important, they often just don't engage the public. The spending battle has been easier to track. Democrats have outspent the Republicans about two to one, even though Pennsylvania's richest man, billionaire Jeff Yass, has been helping Carluccio quite a bit.
So this is one where even though control of the court isn't at stake, the stakes are very high. For one thing, both parties are going to be looking at this to get some early sign on who might have the edge going into 2024. Also, there was a big case heading into last year's election where one of the Democratic justices, Kevin Doherty, sided with the Republicans on a very important case over whether to count mail-in ballots that had arrived on time but had missing or incorrect dates listed on them. That was a big deal. One voter even flew home from vacation in Colorado to correct her own ballot because she just saw this as so important.
So while Democrats would have a majority, no matter what, this seat really could make the decision going into what would be many, many election lawsuits heading into 2024. And to make things even more high stakes, Carluccio recently talked to the Philadelphia Inquirer board about an endorsement. They asked her, "Did Joe Biden win in 2020?" And her initial reaction was, "I have no idea." And they were pretty stunned. She tried to walk that back with a long-winded answer where she said, "Yes, but stuff." And not what you want from a justice. Not too surprisingly, the Philly Inquirer endorsed McCaffrey.
Beard: Yeah, it's crazy to see in this day and age that almost no Republican in the country is happy to just answer that question because so many Republican primary voters have been convinced by Trump and his operation that there was either a dispute or Trump really won or whatever; that to just say a statement of fact is controversial among these Republican voters that these candidates need. So they always end up tying themselves in knots trying not to answer such a simple question.
Singer: Yeah, exactly. And this is a general election, you think after the primary she could just say, "Yeah, totally, Biden won." But nope.
Nir: Yeah, that raises a question of whether she is a cynical political operator who is worried about turning off hardcore far-right Trumpist voters and worried that they're going to stay home, or if she just really is in the thick of this shit and actually believes it. And you know what? She had some comments in the past about really being very sympathetic to totally bogus claims of election fraud. I actually think that she's a ding-dong and that she believes this bullshit and yeah, God, that's just so pathetic for a state Supreme Court Justice. Republicans really couldn't find someone better?
Beard: Yeah, I mean, Republicans probably like it. It is crazy to see the number of people who have been Trump-pilled on this to some degree. Even people you would think would be otherwise reasonable people, the messaging is so intense on the Republican side, if you're in that Republican echo chamber at all, there's so much bombardment about the 2020 election, this and that. Just anything that you see people who would be otherwise reasonable say, "Oh, I don't know. I heard a lot of stuff." And it's just like, come on, come on, just take yourself out of Fox News for five seconds and you can see who won the election.
Singer: And the person she beat in the primary, that person, believe it or not, was much, much worse.
Nir: Well, I do believe it. Well, there is one more big statewide race that we have to talk about, and that is Ohio Issue 1. And this is not Groundhog Day, our listeners of “The Downballot;” they remember very well that Ohioans just voted on Issue 1 in August. That was a different Issue 1. That was the Issue 1 to make ballot initiatives much, much harder to pass. This Issue 1 is the amendment to the state constitution, the proposal that would enshrine abortion rights and a whole host of other related reproductive rights into the state constitution, rolling back Ohio's near-total abortion ban that happens to be on pause for the moment but could easily be un-paused. What's going on in Ohio, Singer?
Singer: Yeah, so this time we are very pro-Issue 1.
Nir: Pro-Issue 1.
Singer: This Issue 1 would amend the state constitution to safeguard reproductive rights up to 22 to 24 weeks into a pregnancy. And there hasn't been too much polling, but we did see two recent numbers that showed it taking at least 55% of the vote. So good sign, but ballot measures can be hard to poll, especially because the Republicans, they're once again trying all the hijinks they can to make this harder to pass. What they did this time was the Ohio Ballot Board, which has a Republican majority, voted to rewrite the summary, not the amendment itself, but the summary to change some wording, to change the word fetus to unborn child, for example. So they're hoping voters will look at that and go, "Oh, no." We'll see how that goes, but the amendment that would go into the constitution that's unchanged. And this is another one where the Republican body language isn't too confident.
Nir: Oh, terrible.
Singer: Yeah, the Republican governor, Mike DeWine, he's been running ads telling people “vote no on Issue 1,” but he's also said, "Okay, here's what you should do, vote no, that way the legislature can meet you, maybe not half, but a little bit of the way. They'll add rape and incest exemptions into the six-week ban." But there's no way he can actually make them do that. He can just encourage them and they've had the chance to do this already and they haven't done it. And he's saying, "Well, okay, so if they don't do it, yeah, you can pass your own amendment then." And I don't think that's a particularly persuasive argument, but he's trying for it.
The good news is also that the pro-Issue 1, the pro-reproductive side, has been outspending their opponents. A few weeks ago that was not the case. So people are seeing a lot more ads from the side that really wants to pass this. So we'll see how it goes. Polling is looking good, but like many things we're talking about, there are just a lot of uncertainties around these races. So we'll just have to see on Tuesday.
Nir: I feel like DeWine's offer is such a sucker's play; who is going to be fooled by that? I really just can't imagine it. Singer, I want to ask you, since you mentioned the spending, what have the ads from each side been focused on? Because abortion was this proxy issue for the August Issue 1 vote, and we saw the, I'm just going to say to simplify things, the bad guy side in August, made up all these cock-and-bull stories about what the abortion amendment would do. What are they trying to say this time and what are the reproductive rights forces countering with?
Singer: So what the anti-abortion side has been doing is they've been saying, "This will open the door to late-term abortions." For one thing that term, abortion rights advocates say, “don't use it, completely misleading.” Not something that people just go out and do. But they've been really, really focusing on that. And if they do have a surprise next weekend and Issue 1 fails, Republicans are going to look at that and try and make every campaign to counter abortion rights about "late-term abortions" and probably if Issue 1 passes, they're going to try the same thing. Because it's one of those things that even though it doesn't happen, it sounds just terrible to swing voters or that's what they're hoping.
The pro-Issue 1 side, they've been having a much simpler argument. They've been laying out a lot of these horror stories about people who had to get emergency abortions because of all these medical conditions. And they said, "Under the current law, during some of the worst moments of our lives when we really need medical help, we can't get it." Or, "We have to jump through all these hoops to get it." And just all these heartbreaking stories. And it's been a much more clear message.
Beard: To go back for a second to the Mike DeWine argument, the idea that if Issue 1 narrowly fails and the anti-abortion side was to be successful even by five votes, they would so obviously take that as a validation of their entire stance and be like, actually, all of America wants to ban all abortions. That's what they would take from this. On the chance that they win this, they are going to see that as proof that they are on the right track and they should keep going.
They're not going to see, "Well, we ran a lot of ads about adding exemptions and we managed to win. So the responsible thing to do would be to go to the Republican legislature and pass some exemptions that are closer to the general public's view." That is never going to happen. So the idea that Mike DeWine is pushing this is just laughable and really I think shows how disingenuous Mike DeWine is because he's spent his whole career trying to present himself as this establishment, normal, not-crazy Republican. And at every opportunity he's said nice things and then sided with the far-right Republicans on issue after issue.
Singer: Yeah, exactly. And Republicans, ever since Roe was overturned, have been looking for some argument they can use to counter abortion ads. And in 2022, for most of it, the argument was, oh, we're not going to even address that, we're just going to run ads on other things. And nope, that did work in some races, but this isn't going away for them. This is not going to be going back to the time when abortion was an issue that mostly motivated the Republicans. That's just not happening under the current status quo, and Republicans are going to need to deal with that.
Nir: Well, that is a perfect jumping-off point to talk about the other huge, huge set of races taking place on Tuesday night. I'm talking of course about the battle for the Virginia legislature. Every single seat in the state Senate and the state House is going before voters, and abortion has been a central issue there as well. Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin has somehow succeeded in getting some newspapers to stop using the word ban to describe what he wants to do, calling it instead a "limit" — those are fucking synonyms. I mean, this again feels like more gaslighting in the DeWine style, but Singer, well, let's put a pin in that one. Why don't you give us a lay of the land, the overall picture of both chambers; we'll talk about some key seats and then we'll get into the messages that are flying back and forth from both sides.
Singer: So the Republicans have a narrow majority in the state House of Delegates, 52 seats to the Democrats 48. In the state Senate, it's the reverse: 22 Democrats, 18 Republicans. If Republicans manage to tie in the state Senate, they win the Chamber because they hold the Lieutenant Governor's office. If there's a tie in the state House, with no tiebreaker, we can have some very chaotic power-sharing agreements. So we'll see how that goes, but hopefully won't come down to that.
Nir: So that means that Democrats really need to flip three seats in the State House in order to take a true majority.
Singer: Exactly. And in the overall picture, Democrats are outspending Republicans at Impact, which has been really great about tracking spending in all sorts of these races. They just tweeted about the money spent on ads, Democrats have spent 56%, and Republicans have spent 44%. Not an insurmountable gulf, but it's there. And I think that's surprising because Glenn Youngkin, he has been talked about as a late presidential candidate and the Virginia elections are sort of an audition for that. He has a lot of rich donors that he's getting to fund his super PAC. I don't think people would've necessarily expected Democrats would have the edge or even one this big in terms of spending.
Beard: Obviously there's a number of races in both chambers that are going to be key here. We went through a bunch of them a few weeks ago with Blue Virginia's Lowell Feld. We encourage everyone to go back and listen to that if they haven't. But why don't you pick out a seat for us in the state Senate and a seat for us in the state House that you really see as bellwethers that you could look to on election night as to how things are going?
Singer: Yeah, so in the state Senate, I'll look at Senate District 31, it's in northern Virginia in Loudoun County. It's like pretty much every seat that people are going to be watching. It's a seat that Joe Biden won a year before Glenn Youngkin won it. Joe Biden won 56% of the vote here. Glenn Youngkin won just a bare majority, 50% to Terry McAuliffe's 49%. And the Democratic candidate is a prosecutor, Russet Perry. The Republican candidate is a businessman, Juan Pablo Segura, who's the son of a billionaire.
And if you asked me a few months ago, I would've said, yeah, Segura is going to be spending just so much money, he just has access to so much. But this is interesting. There were new campaign finance reports that came out the day we’re recording this. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, which is another good resource, Perry has actually raised a total of $6 million to Segura's $5 million. So that's a ton of money just going on in a very expensive area. But again, an advantage to the Democrats where I think maybe a little while ago we would predict that the Republicans would be ahead.
Nir: And one thing that we need to note about these Virginia races, they tend to be among the most expensive legislative contests, really anywhere in the country. And it's not just because Virginia has these contested elections almost every single odd-numbered year, but Virginia is one of these wild west states. Yes, I know it's on the East Coast. It's one of these wild west states that have basically no campaign finance limits whatsoever.
So you can have huge donations from pretty much any source flood into these campaigns. Yeah, it is pretty interesting that the spawn of a billionaire is getting outraced by a former prosecutor. Even though undoubtedly both sides are getting big money help, that definitely does not feel like something I would've expected.
Singer: Yeah, same and that could be a good sign. But in an off-year like this where the only big things on the ballot are legislative seats and some local races, turnout is kind of the enemy. In the past, Republicans used to do really well in these races. That changed during the Trump era. Special election data has been really good on that front, but Republicans really, really, really want control of the legislature. So, turnout is a big variable. We'll just have to see.
Nir: Yeah, that off-off-year Democratic turnout was just always something to really, really dread with large and very important parts of the Democratic coalition often being the kind of voters who don't show up for these odd-numbered year elections. But, as I think you're alluding, Singer, we have seen that really change in the Trump era with more highly-educated, more well-off voters who tend to be more frequent voters coming into the Democratic fold. Obviously, 2021 sucked for Virginia Democrats and we’re super lucky that the state Senate wasn't even up for election that year. But a lot of people have wondered about this and maybe we are seeing a new era when the off-year elections actually do favor Democrats.
Singer: Yeah, it could be. I mean, 2022 went better than expected. There have been some persuasive arguments that it wasn't so much Democratic turnout as Republicans were terrible about winning swing voters. But we remember what 2014 was like, completely different. So yeah, could see that happening. And northern Virginia, that's a place with a lot of well-educated, affluent voters, the type of people who disproportionately show up, especially in elections where the presidency isn't on the line. That's the base that Democrats did really well in flipping during the Trump era. So, this is a seat definitely that is going to have some implications.
Beard: Now let's go to a different part of Virginia for our state House bellwether, maybe somewhere in the southeast, maybe the Virginia Beach area. Tell us about a district there.
Singer: District 97 in the Virginia Beach area: it's another Biden-Youngkin seat. Biden won 55% of the vote here, Youngkin won 51%. And it has a Republican incumbent, Republican Delegate Karen Greenhalgh. The Democrats are fielding an Air Force veteran, Michael Feggans. And this is an area that has been pretty politically unpredictable over the last few years. This is located in the 2nd congressional district where Republican Jen Kiggans just flipped that seat last year. But Democrat Aaron Rouse won the special election to succeed Kiggans in January. So, an area that has been Republican, but it's going more back and forth and we'll just see which way it lands.
This is another one where Democrats do have the fundraising advantage, although it's not quite as stark. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Feggans outraced Greenhalgh $3.2 million to $2.8 million, but it's that close in terms of money, no one's really having much of an edge over anyone else. You get into diminishing returns territory, but still nice to see. And this is definitely one we're going to be looking at. It’s a competitive district area that's gone back and forth in the last few years; good recipe for some unpredictability.
Nir: One thing I should add is that because of Virginia's lax campaign finance regime, you don't really see independent expenditures in this state because the big entities can, generally speaking, pretty much just give whatever they want to the candidates. I think for the most part, when we're talking about this candidate fundraising, it also probably encompasses most if not almost all of the spending in any given race. And there's also one other thing to point out, which is that Virginia has brand new maps. These were court-drawn maps after the state's new redistricting commission completely fell apart and failed to produce maps of its own. This has really scrambled the playing field. And in this district, District 97 in the House, you do have a Republican delegate seeking reelection, but in some of these seats, it's almost quite difficult to even say whether they are actually a Democratic seat or a Republican seat. And what really matters in the end is that final number and that's going to be 21 for Democrats in the Senate, 20 for Republicans, and 51 for either side in the House.
Singer: Yeah, exactly. And so many of these districts are just up for grabs. The spending edge is nice to see, but this is a place where there are just so many variables, so many different types of seats, that it’s hard to predict where things are going to be going into Tuesday.
Nir: Yeah, and a lot of open seats as well.
Beard: Yeah. And we're going to return to Pennsylvania, of course, one of the most important states from an electoral perspective. So, of course, we want to see how some of these key areas in the state go in this November ahead of next year's election. Let's start with Bucks County, a suburban area outside of Philadelphia, and some really important commissioner races there.
Singer: Bucks County: populous suburban area, but it's not one of those suburban areas that really swung far to the left in the last few years. Has a lot of middle-class, blue-collar voters, kind of balances out. It's voted for the Democrat presidential candidate in every election since 1992, but there have been some very close calls. Hillary Clinton only narrowly took it in 2016. Joe Biden won it by a larger margin, 52% to 47%, but not exactly true blue territory here. And Republicans for years dominated Bucks County politics locally. They controlled the county commission from the 1983 elections until 2019 when Democrats flipped it. And Republicans now very much want it back.
Pennsylvania elects their county governments in many, but not all, counties differently than pretty much anywhere in the UA. For one thing, there's no one county executive in Bucks County or a lot of other places that you just elect or vote against. There are three county commissioners and they're all elected countywide. They're all on the same ballot, so you can vote for multiple ones. But one of the weird twists is that even though there are three spots, each party can only nominate two candidates. So, unless there happens to be, say, a strong third-party candidate or independent, which there rarely is, it's always a two-to-one majority for somebody. The question is which party.
And that's actually why in some really red or occasionally some very populous blue counties, you have someone who's elected countywide from the other party and sometimes they'll say, "Look how popular I am. I'm a Democrat who won in a very red area," when these weird rules got them there. But those are the rules. And there are two Democrat incumbents who won in 2019. They're running again. Republicans have their own incumbent and another candidate; they're hoping that Bucks County is going to go back their way. And there's been some mixed evidence on that. 2020, Biden won it by a convincing, although not dominant margin. In 2021, for other races like district attorney and sheriff, Republicans romped. In 2022, Bucks went back to the Democrats. Josh Shapiro did very well here for Governor. John Fetterman cleaned up here for the Senate. But the 1st congressional district, which is dominated by Bucks County, reelected their moderate-sounding Republican, Brian Fitzpatrick.
So there's still a lot of split-ticket voting around here. And I should note, even if people are like, "But it's Bucks County, it doesn't really affect me." It could, because, as Bolts recently did an article about the commissioners in these counties, they have a lot of jurisdiction over election policies like where drop boxes are, how many there are, and whether mail-in voters get the chance to correct clerical mistakes. And those are things that could very well impact the next presidential election. It's kind of an exaggeration to say Bucks County will determine the next election or anything like that. That's never how it works. But what happens on Tuesday could have implications going into 2024.
Nir: And it's a big county. It's the fourth-biggest county in Pennsylvania. So whether or not it's a bellwether, there's still a lot of votes at stake there for both parties. And yeah, I think it'll definitely be a potential battleground in 2024. Even, if I might digress for a second, at the congressional level, we've been hammering Brian Fitzpatrick on this show recently for his votes for Jim Jordan and then for Mike Johnson who are both opponents of Ukraine funding and it's a very Ukrainian-American area, but we'll certainly come back to that after November 7th. But the stakes are really big here and this is the kind of election that I feel folks who write about it or talk about it are really doing a great service because these people actually control important parts of our lives. And what they do, like you were saying Singer, has out-sized effects that go far beyond their county borders. So definitely keep an eye on Bucks County to see whether Democrats retain their 2-1 majority on Tuesday night.
Beard: Now, let's go all the way over to the other side of the state, to Allegheny County, the home of Pittsburgh. They've got a couple of really competitive countywide races there. Let's first talk about the District Attorney's race.
Singer: Yeah, so this is a rematch from just a few months ago. There's a long-time prosecutor, Stephen Zappala. He's been district attorney for 25 years. Very far from a criminal justice reformer. And in May, the former county chief public defender, Matt Dugan, won a decisive victory over Zappala in the Democratic Primary. In most states, that would be the end of it. Dugan would be the nominee and Republicans wouldn't have much of a chance in a county that Biden won with close to 60% of the votes. But Pennsylvania's a little complicated. Zappala saw which way the wind was going and he wanted a backup opportunity. And so the Republicans, in their primary, didn't field any candidates. He, with Republican support, runs as a write-in candidate, gets enough write-in votes to be the Republican nominee, and so Zappala is back for the general election.
And he says he's still a Democrat, but he's running a very, very, very Republican campaign. He's been running pretty much the type of ads you'd expect where you see footage of cities burning and rioters looting things and he says, "This will be coming to you if Matt Dugan wins." And Dugan's taken a different approach. He ran this pretty cute ad where he went up to people and said, "Oh, happy birthday. Don't party too hard." And tells a woman on her scooter, "Just be safe." He just says, "I want to keep people safe." And a very different impression from the “city's burning” mentality we get from Zappala. But Dugan's also gone on the attack. He's run ads saying Zappala's too close to the gun lobby. He's gone after him on how he's prosecuted cases.
This is one where I haven't really seen much polling. There's been talk of things being close, but no one's really released anything. But it's a county that Biden won with 60% of the vote, which gives Dugan a big floor. But Zappala's a very memorable name. He's been around a long time. His family's influential. He has won several races as a Democrat. He's hoping to get enough crossover support to win. We'll see what happens.
Beard: And I just want to say, you can say all you want, "Oh, I'm still a Democrat," but part of being a Democrat means accepting the results of the Democratic primary and supporting...
Nir: Yes. Thank you.
Beard: ... the Democratic nominee, whoever that person may be. It is not having a backup option for the opposition party and then taking their nomination and being like, "Oh, don't worry about it. I'm still a Dem. You may see an R next to my name, and maybe thanks to Republican voters that I'm here, but don't worry, I'm still a Dem." That's not how elections work. So I will be watching this race closely and hoping that Dugan wipes the floor with him.
Nir: But we have seen situations like this where an incumbent loses in a Democratic primary to someone who's running to their left, which is clearly the setup here, and then somehow manages to come back in the general election. And the example I'm thinking of from not all that long ago was in the Buffalo Mayor's race, Buffalo, New York, where the incumbent mayor looked like his career was toast after losing the Primary and then he won a write-in campaign in the general election for another term. That was obviously a somewhat different set of circumstances here. The incumbent in that race was not embracing the Republican label, but obviously, you're looking for Republican votes in a situation like that. So yeah, Allegheny County, as you said, it's blue turf, but definitely, we can't take it as a foregone conclusion that a stunt like this won't work.
Singer: Yeah, exactly. And at least Zappala didn't form a Pennsylvania for Zappala Party, like some former Connecticut senator who did something like this that we could think of.
Beard: Don't bring back nightmares.
Nir: But hey, Chris Murphy, awesome senator now. So it worked out a lot better for us than it did for Joe Lieberman.
Beard: So there's one other race we wanted to cover in Allegheny County. That's the executive race for the county. Tell us about that race.
Singer: This is the race to lead Allegheny County, and unlike in Bucks County, this is a direct race. You vote for or against the person running to be executive, and Democrats have controlled this office, not quite since it was created in the '90s, but close to it. The Democratic incumbent Rich Fitzgerald's termed out, and in the Democratic Primary back in May, former state Representative Sara Innamorato campaigned as an ardent progressive. She won. It was a big sign that politics in and around Pittsburgh are continuing to favor progressives. But Republicans are putting up a fight here. Their candidate, businessman Joe Rockey, has had a massive advertising advantage. It's very, very lopsided, and he's been running all sorts of ads saying, "I'm a moderate, and Innamorato, she's way too far-left."
And Innamorato, she's been fighting back. She's been tying Rockey to national Republicans like Trump, people who are toxic in areas like this. But the resource gap is a big problem. So we're going to have to see how this one goes. This is another one where there's been talk about close polls, but no one has actually released them, which angers us as polling analysts when we can't actually see the real things beyond talk of margins. But this one is worth watching and we'll be keeping a close look on it on election night, definitely.
Nir: Sometimes the names of these Pennsylvania candidates are just a little too perfect. Yeah, yeah. I realize it's on the other side of the state, but this guy's name is Rockey? I mean, come on. I've
Beard: Seen people vote for worse reasons, so let's not hope too many Pittsburgh voters are like, "Hey, let's vote for Rockey."
Nir: Oh my God. Or maybe they're like, "Oh, that son of a bitch Rocky Balboa's from Philly, so fuck him." Right? That's what we have to hope for.
Singer: Little Issue 1, Issue 1 confusion.
Nir: We're going to wrap up with one last county executive race in my home state. Though, I have to say, geographically and culturally, not my hometown of New York City; we're talking about Suffolk County out on eastern Long Island. And there we also have a Democratic county executive who is termed out and a competitive race to replace him.
Singer: So this is an area that’s very populous, 1.5 million people, and unlike a lot of suburban areas, it did not just swing left with Trump. It's been competitive. Trump in 2020 won it by 232 votes, largest county in the country he carried, even if it was by a tiny amount. And the last few years though, things have been really rough there for Democrats; Republicans really, really, really like running on crime and saying Democrats are soft on crime. And in 2021, and 2022, it very much worked. Republicans just really cleaned up here in almost every election that they could, and Democrats really want to prove that, no, we can push back. That was temporary. We can message on this. We do not need to just take this lying down. The Democratic candidate is a businessman and former prosecutor, Dave Calone. He's been running ads about how "I'm a former prosecutor. I'm smart on crime."
The Republican candidate is the town Supervisor of Brookhaven, Ed Romaine, and he has police unions on his side. He really, really wants to keep going with the playbook that's worked for his party the last few years. So, unlike in Bucks County, this isn't really a battleground in a swing state, but Suffolk does have two congressional districts that both parties are going to be watching in 2024. So they're going to be looking for clues. Nassau County, just next door, its politics went the same way the last few years. It's more blue, but also it's home to some important congressional districts, including one that's represented by Mr. George Santos. This is one that we're going to be watching to see if voters on Long Island are more receptive to Democratic ads than they have been the last few years or whether Republicans can just keep shouting crime and have things happen.
Nir: It's funny, I actually know Dave Calone. He and I worked together on Eliot Spitzer's campaign for Attorney General all the way back in 1998. So we're talking a quarter-century ago, and it's just always a hell of a thing when someone you actually know personally is running for office. It's wild to be talking about someone I once shared a desk with.
Beard: Yeah, I guess that's what happens when a lot of people work on campaigns when you're very young. Some of them grew up to be politicians. Who knew?
Nir: Well, Jeff Singer, thank you so much for coming on to preview all these races. “Downballot” listeners, on Tuesday night, head over to elections.dailykos.com for our liveblog of all of these races and many, many more. We will also be covering the results blow-by-blow on Twitter. That's @DKElections. We'll be publishing some guides to all of the key races before election night. Also coming up is our annual elections contest, which once again is sponsored by our wonderful friends at Green's Bakery. The prize is going to be delicious babka, as always, for the winner. So keep a lookout on our Twitter feed or in the Morning Digest Newsletter. Go to dailykos.com/morningdigest to sign up. If somehow you haven't yet, we've got a lot of goodies coming for you between now and Election Day and hoping to celebrate another good election night. Jeff, thank you so much for coming on “The Downballot” to share your wisdom with us.
Singer: Thank you. And as retiring Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer is fond of saying, "Vote Earl. Vote often."
Nir: Love it.
Beard: That's all from us this week. Thanks to Jeff Singer for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing the firstname.lastname@example.org. If you haven't already, please subscribe to the Downballot on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our editor, Trever Jones, and we'll be back next week with a new episode.