You are currently viewing What to Watch in Kentucky and Philadelphia as Elections Approach<br>In Kentucky, Republicans are deciding on a candidate to challenge the popular Democratic governor. Democrats in Philadelphia are tangled in a heated contest to lead the prominent liberal metropolis.
Although it is not a presidential election year, the elections in Kentucky and Philadelphia on Tuesday may provide insight into the mindset of voters in both parties. Credit... Erik Branch for The New York Times

What to Watch in Kentucky and Philadelphia as Elections Approach
In Kentucky, Republicans are deciding on a candidate to challenge the popular Democratic governor. Democrats in Philadelphia are tangled in a heated contest to lead the prominent liberal metropolis.

Though 2023 is a down year for American politics, dominated by the growing Republican presidential primary contest and a slew of scandals and controversies, there are still important elections this year that will provide an early glimpse into the attitude of voters in both parties before 2024.

On Tuesday, a contentious Republican primary for governor in Kentucky will conclude. As they aim to unseat Gov. Andy Beshear, a rare Democratic leader of a red state who also happens to be one of the most popular governors in the country, two pillars of the state’s Republican machinery have upped their assaults on one other.

In Philadelphia, the nation’s sixth largest city and a liberal stronghold in purple Pennsylvania, voters will choose the Democratic nominee for mayor, who is almost certain to become the city’s next leader and has the potential to become a high-profile player in next year’s presidential election. In addition, two special elections in the state could decide who controls the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where Democrats hold a slender majority.

In Delaware County, one of the suburbs’ “collar counties” outside of Philadelphia, an unexpectedly tight special election for an open State House seat in a once-reliable Democratic area will determine who controls the Pennsylvania state.

Jacksonville, Florida, the largest populous city in the US with a Republican mayor, is also experiencing a significant mayoral election. The candidates for mayor after Lenny Curry are Republican Daniel Davis and Democrat Donna Deegan, both of whom have the backing of organizations that support abortion rights.

First test for a rising star: Daniel Cameron was already making history as the first Black man and Republican to hold the office of attorney general in Kentucky in almost 50 years. But once he gave a speech during prime time at the 2020 Republican National Convention, his political notoriety soared.

Senator Mitch McConnell and Mr. Cameron are good friends; some in the state refer to him as Mr. McConnell’s protege. When he declared his run for governor a year ago, it seemed like he would easily win the Republican primary.

But Kelly Craft, a former ambassador to the UN and member of a Republican megadonor family, invested millions of her own funds into an aggressive ad campaign, attacking Mr. Cameron and boosting her own name recognition. As a result, what was once a double-digit lead over the rest of the field significantly shrank during the spring. Republican insiders in the state believe the election is now too close to call, despite the fact that she has not totally closed the polling lead.

Less a split than a freeze: The difficult primary in Kentucky hasn’t split the party like other contentious contests last year, mostly because the leading contenders are members of the conservative side of the party but do not support its more outlandish positions, such conspiracy theories about voting machines.

Of course, money also has an impact. No Republican in the state wants to slow down Mr. Cameron’s progress, but they also don’t want to be at odds with the Crafts, who are among the most active political donors in the party.

The friendly wild card: Mr. Cameron and Ms. Craft have received much of the attention in this race. However, there is a third contender who has a chance of winning: Ryan Quarles, the agriculture commissioner and a stalwart of Frankfort.

Mr. Quarles’ campaign has placed a strong emphasis on local endorsements rather than flashy advertisements or media appearances, garnering the support of more than 230 mayors, judges, and county leaders. These endorsements, together with a sizable amount of backing from the agricultural community, may provide Mr. Quarles with a strong enough foundation to prevail in an election when support is divided between the three candidates.

Trump as a potential kingmaker?

What are the scandals? Even as he faces mounting legal challenges and an unfavorable verdict in the civil case in which E. Jean Carroll successfully sued him, former President Donald J. Trump remains the most popular and influential figure in a Republican primary election, particularly in a state like Kentucky, which he won by more than 25 points in 2020.

Mr. Cameron said during a discussion that he was “honored” to still have Mr. Trump’s backing after a jury found him guilty for sexually assaulting and defaming Ms. Carroll.

No, he endorsed me. Both contenders have the previous president’s support. Ms. Craft worked in his administration, donated to his campaigns, and will be present at the Kentucky Derby in 2022. She has launched multiple advertisements contrasting her style to Mr. Trump’s.

However, Mr. Trump backed Mr. Cameron (admittedly, this was before Ms. Craft formally joined the race), something Mr. Cameron emphasizes multiple times in his stump speeches and advertisements.

“President Donald J. Trump has endorsed this campaign for governor,” Mr. Cameron told an audience at a Republican banquet in Meade County last month, “despite what some others may tell you.”

Education and ‘woke’ politics are prominent.

2017 redux? Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican from the state of Virginia, built his surprising win in 2017 by focusing relentlessly on education. He painted Democrats as focused on providing unsuitable information to young pupils and contended that a school’s curriculum should be decided by parents, not instructors.

Mr. Cameron and Ms. Craft have both made education reform a centerpiece of their campaign speeches. Mr. Cameron stated that it was the most important issue he has heard from voters, and he has promised to dismiss the Democratic-appointed commissioner of education. During her stump speeches, Ms. Craft holds up copies of literature she wants to outlaw.

“Woke” wars: In their speeches, both candidates regularly criticize “woke” philosophy. Visitors to Ms. Craft’s website were met with a film condemning “woke” practices for months.

This broadly defined conservative catchall — a word regularly employed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as well — has undoubtedly taken root among the Republican grassroots. Ms. Craft and Mr. Cameron frequently receive the most applause for this phrase.

Beyond the primary, it remains to be seen how voters in a general election, especially in deeply red Kentucky, would react to a blatantly anti-“woke” campaign.

A struggle for Philadelphia’s future

A test of left-wing strength: In the crowded Democratic mayoral race, former City Council member Helen Gym has emerged as the most prominent progressive candidate, backed by national left-wing leaders such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

They both rallied with her on Sunday, and Brandon Johnson, who won the Chicago mayor’s election last month, has backed her and collected donations for her.

A victory for Ms. Gym, a seasoned community organizer who is especially focused on schools, would be lauded by national progressive leaders as the latest in a string of left-leaning triumphs in big cities, though their performance at the national level has been considerably more uneven in recent years.

However, regardless of the outcome, many political watchers in Pennsylvania advise against taking broad generalizations about the city’s attitude from a contest that may have low turnout or be determined by a close margin – or both. Polling has been sparse, implying a close and uncertain race.

Public safety debates predominate: In the aftermath of the epidemic, Philadelphia, like many other big American cities, has grappled with gun violence and other forms of crime. The complete picture of municipal safety is complex, but there is little doubt that it has been the defining issue in the mayor’s election.

Democrats running for mayor have disagreed on matters such as police stops of civilians — particularly the practice of stop-and-frisk — and whether to prioritize hiring additional police officers to the department.

However, across the ideological spectrum, they have emphasized their commitment to make the city safer, and there is broad agreement on the need to both fill police vacancies and condemn police abuse.

in charge of Pennsylvania’s legislature

Democrats in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives now hold a one-vote majority, but two special elections on Tuesday might result in a return of Republican control.

North-central Pennsylvania’s 108th Legislative District has one open seat; voters there will almost certainly choose a Republican.

Democrats should easily win the 163rd Legislative District contest in southeast Delaware County. Mike Zabel, a former state representative who resigned in March after being accused of harassment, left it vacant. However, Mr. Zabel won his district in November by almost 30 points, and the position is in a solidly Democratic region.

However, there are mounting worries that the seat may not be as secure as it has appeared, and Democrats across the state are encouraging residents to cast ballots. Democratic governor Josh Shapiro recently produced a 30-second film showcasing the contest.

Democratic candidates are emphasizing the race’s importance in preserving abortion rights in Pennsylvania, where the procedure is still legal. Republicans may place a prospective abortion ban on the ballot as a constitutional amendment if they win control of the House and the Senate.

Such restrictions, however, mainly failed in 2022 and frequently served as a motivating factor for Democratic candidates or causes, including in the deeply conservative state of Kansas, where voters rejected an abortion ban months before the 2022 midterm elections.