Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and wife Britainy Beshear speak at a 2021 press conference with President Joe Biden in a neighborhood impacted by tornadoes. Gov. Beshear, a Democrat, was re-elected Nov. 7, 2023, to serve a second term in the red state. Credit: Jocelyn Augustino, U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency via Wikimedia Commons

When Shawn Wilson, the only major Democrat in the Louisiana gubernatorial race, failed to make it into a runoff with Republican Jeff Landry on October 14, many pundits argued that the state’s demographics make it impossible for Democrats to be competitive in statewide elections. However, on November 7, Democrats achieved electoral successes in two red states: Kentucky and Ohio, and in Virginia, a Purple swing state with a Republican governor. 

Kentucky is an interesting case study because its demographics are similar to Louisiana. Both Southern states are similar in size. According to US Census Bureau, they each have between 4.5 to 4.6 million residents. Their median household income levels are each between $54,000 to $55,000. 

The main demographic difference is that Kentucky is about 9 percent Black, while Louisiana is about 33 percent Black. Kentucky is about 45 percent Republican, 45 percent Democrat, 10 percent independent. Louisiana is about 39 percent Democrat, 34 percent Republican, 27 percent independent. 

Kentucky and Louisiana are both red states with Republican supermajorities in their state legislatures, and Donald Trump won both states by double digits in 2016 (Kentucky, 62.5 percent and Louisiana, 58.1 percent) and 2020 (Kentucky 62.1 percent and Louisiana, 58.5 percent). In spite of these disadvantages, Democratic Governor Andy Beshear won reelection with 53 percent of the vote against the Trump-backed candidate, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. 

Beshear won by painting his opponent as too extreme on abortion, and running emotionally-charged ads featuring women expressing their fears of losing rights in a post-Dobbs environment. Dobbs v. Jackson was the Supreme Court decision that reversed Roe v. Wade. Kentucky currently has one of the strictest abortion laws in the U.S. Beshear, who is pro-choice, ran directly against it.

Abortion played a big role in two other elections on November 7. In Virginia, popular Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin campaigned on a 15-week abortion ban. To pass it, he needed to gain Republican legislative majorities. Instead, his party lost both houses, with Democrats gaining a 21 to 19 advantage in the Senate, and a 51 to 48 advantage in the House. Democrats campaigned directly against Youngkin’s abortion ban. 

In Ohio, which has Republican supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, a referendum placing the right to have an abortion into the state constitution passed with 57 percent of the vote. In fact, in every state where abortion referendums have been placed on the ballot since the Dobbs decision, the pro-choice side has won, including the red state of Kansas. 

In the post-Dobbs environment, the abortion issue appears to be a liability to the Republican Party, and Democrats have been able to successfully exploit this liability in many state elections held since the Supreme Court ruling. This is not a surprise, given the information that about two-thirds of U.S. voters support abortion rights and believe that the Supreme Court was wrong to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Many will argue that Louisiana is a pro-life state where the issue would not work. It should be noted that no gubernatorial candidate has ever specifically run on the issue as a campaign centerpiece, and the issue was never put before the voters as a constitutional amendment post-Dobbs, so there is no way of knowing with certainty. However, a poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling for Gray Media in September found that a majority, 53 percent, of Louisiana respondents said they actually opposed the current strict Louisiana abortion law. 

So what lessons can be learned? First, forget trying to appeal to everyone. All elections are nationalized and partisan. You are not going to change many minds. Most people have either already picked a side, or they are simply not interested in voting, as seen in low turnout from both parties. Success in the current political environment is achieved through targeting voters who already agree with you, and giving them a specific reason to turn out. Enthusiasm determines turnout.

For all the hand-wringing about the 36 percent turnout in Louisiana, turnout was almost as low in Kentucky, at 38 percent. The difference was that Andy Beshear targeted his specific voters and gave them a specific reason to turn out. Second, choice on abortion is a winning issue for Democrats, even in red states. And finally, don’t let your opponents outspend you. In every race the Democrats won on November 7, they outspent the Republicans, highlighting the need for a state party structure that can raise money.    

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Robert Collins is a professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard, where he holds the Conrad N. Hilton Endowed Professorship. He previously held positions as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences...