Abortion, Elvis and clues to 2024: The top races to watch on Election Day

While various Republicans jockey for position in their party’s ongoing primary and discontent grows among Democrats who fear that the president’s political future is uncertain, voters are heading to the polls on Tuesday to decide a set of much smaller contests around the country.

But while the stakes may be slightly lower than the presidential race, the relevance of Tuesday’s vote will still be felt in the everyday lives of millions of Americans. Voters in three states are set to make key decisions that will shape the future of their state’s politics — and in a fourth, they ponder the question of whether to reshape their state’s constitution.

Two of Tuesday’s states-to-watch are set to be major battlegrounds next year as well. As such, many will be looking for signs of Joe Biden’s strength — or, perhaps, his weakness — as the races conclude on Tuesday night. With recent polling indicating a fraying of the coalition that drove Mr Biden to the White House in 2020, a win (or wins) for Republicans could be a bad headline for the president at absolutely the worst possible time.

The Independent is here as your source for thoughtful analysis of tonight’s contests, however they end up being decided. Here’s what we are looking at:

Virginia as a bellwether

Much like the gubernatorial race that played out in 2021, Virginia’s elections on Tuesday are a favourite of beltway analysts when it comes to predicting greater national trends. The state is in many ways a microcosm of the east coast, with Republican-leaning rural areas crammed into the same state as the traditionally deep-blue suburbs of Washington DC, including the cities of Arlington and Alexandria. Military installations including Quantico and Norfolk, and college towns such as Blacksburg, are also centres of activity.

As a result, Virginia is in the unique situation of having seen its state help elect Joe Biden to office in 2020 only to turn around exactly a year later and install a Republican governor over a Democrat who had formerly resided in the governor’s mansion. On Tuesday, they will decide whether to hand Republicans further control of the state, where the party already controls the lower house of the General Assembly, or whether Glenn Youngkin will govern with further obstacles in the way of his conservative agenda.

One potential boon for Democrats: part of that agenda is a proposed 15-week ban on abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, and medical emergencies which endanger the mother’s life. A massive fight has broken out over that controversial aspect of the Youngkin plan in a state where 55 per cent of adults believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to Pew polling. Mr Youngkin is clearly playing defence; a PAC linked to the governor is running ads claiming that the legislation is not a “ban” due to the exceptions inherent in the policy.

Here, Democrats will gauge whether abortion rights can be a standard for their party to rally around as control of the suburbs may end up being the race’s deciding factor.

Ohio’s big abortion fight

The Buckeye State is the site of Tuesday’s second major battle over the issue of abortion as a right. The Supreme Court’s decision tossing out decades of protections for abortion rights in Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization last year kicked off a firestorm in the red-trending purple state, and now the left in Ohio faces a major test.

Unburdened from attachments to any local or national politics, voters will decide on Tuesday whether to enshrine a fundamental right to abortion and reproductive freedom in the state’s constitution. Doing so would send a major message to the right in a state where Democrats have been unable to score a serious victory in years; it would also subsequently reinforce an image for many Democrats concerning the popularity of their party’s position on the issue of abortion rights.

Polling from a local university, Baldwin Wallace, indicated that nearly six in 10 Ohio voters favoured the constitutional amendment heading into election day.

Elvis is still alive in Mississippi

Well, sort of. The late King of Rock and Roll’s second cousin Brandon is running for governor, having previously served as a small-town mayor and currently 15 years into a stint as Public Service Commissioner for the northern district of the state. Democrats typically face steep odds when running for statewide office in deep-red bastions like Mississippi, but a few factors have pushed this race into semi-competitive territory and have laid the ground for a possible upset on Tuesday.

First, there’s the general unpopularity of Tate Reeves, Mississippi’s scandal-plagued governor who continues to face questions over millions of dollars of misused public funds. That scandal was thrust into the national public’s interest after it was revealed that Brett Favre, former NFL superstar, had apparently received welfare funding and used it to construct a volleyball centre.

Secondly, there’s Mr Presley’s outreach to the Black communities of the state which has allowed him to cobble together a coalition that could present a serious challenge to Mr Reeves if the governor is unable to turn out his own base of supporters. A slate of Black candidates for other statewide offices, long seen as a pipe dream given Mississippi’s history of policies which effectively repressed the Black vote, bolsters Mr Presley’s chances as well.

Andy Beshear hopes to extend a GOP headache

One would think Republicans could have an advantage in the race for control of the Kentucky governor’s mansion, given that the state hasn’t elected a Democrat to the US Senate since the turn of the century. Not so, thanks to the ugly collapse of Matt Bevin’s administration in 2019, a result of the Republican incumbent picking a fight with teachers and losing while he ran for re-election.

Andy Beshear, the Democrat who beat Mr Bevin by only a few thousand votes in 2019, is up for re-election himself today. Unlike Mr Bevin, he has not stepped on any political landmines within the past two years, and heads into the night with a comfortable polling lead in nearly every available survey. One Emerson College poll showing his opponent, Daniel Cameron, in the lead does so with Mr Cameron polling just one point ahead, well within the margin of error.

The real importance of Kentucky’s vote on Tuesday will be a gauge of President Joe Biden’s popularity; Mr Beshear, with the twin advantages of incumbency and a consistent polling lead, is expected to win — a defeat would almost certainly be read as a sign of voter mistrust in the Democratic brand. Just maybe don’t expect that to happen without similar results playing out in Ohio and Virginia.