On the ballot in 2023: Southern governors, big-city mayors

WASHINGTON (AP) — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot will be asking voters for a second term leading one of the nation’s biggest cities. Republicans will try to take full control of the Virginia Legislature. Governors’ mansions are up for election in Louisiana and Mississippi, and a Democratic governor in red-state Kentucky will try to hang on for another term.

While much of the political focus in 2023 is on the emerging presidential race, voters in some states will be weighing in on lower-profile contests that will nonetheless provide fresh insight into their priorities and views on the direction of the country.

Republicans are expected to try to tie Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear to President Joe Biden and other national Democrats who tend to be more liberal. Beshear, making his reelection bid in a state that heavily favors Republicans, gently distanced himself from Biden in a recent interview with The Associated Press, saying, “This race isn’t going to be about the White House.”

“It’s going to be what’s going on in the homes of each and every Kentuckian,” Beshear said. “And I think this last set of elections showed that if you want to be governor, people expect you to have a plan. People expect you to talk to them and not simply use some national talking points.”

State GOP spokesperson Sean Southard in a statement earlier this month said the party feels that the “fundamentals are strong for a Republican candidate to defeat him” once the party has a nominee.

About a dozen Republicans have said they are running, including former U.N. Ambassador Kelly Craft, state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who has already received former President Donald Trump's endorsement.

The Republican Governors Association did not make someone available for an interview but noted in a statement that the only incumbent governor to lose in 2022 was a Democrat, Steve Sisolak of Nevada, “and the RGA is ready to do it again in 2023.”

“Democrat Andy Beshear does not align with Kentucky’s values, and we know voters are eager for Republican leadership in Frankfort,” RGA spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez said.

New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who is taking over as chair of the Democratic Governors Association in 2023, said the group’s “highest priority, far and away, is to defend and reelect” Beshear.

The group made a controversial but ultimately successful move in 2022 to boost far-right Republican candidates in several states’ GOP races, allowing Democratic candidates to face easier-to-beat opponents in the general election.

Murphy would not rule out taking similar steps in 2023, saying: “As long as it is ethical and legal, nothing is off the table.”

His party faces a tougher battle in conservative Louisiana, where moderate Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is term-limited. It’s unclear who will emerge as a Democratic candidate, but a large pool of GOP candidates is expected to jump into the race. One of the highest-profile Republicans considering a bid is U.S. Sen. John Kennedy.

In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves will seek a second term. He recently signed into law the state’s largest-ever tax cut and plans to push for a full elimination of the state’s income tax in 2023. His reelection bid may be complicated, however, by lingering frustrations over the crumbling water system in the capital city of Jackson, which partially failed in August and left the majority-Black city of about 150,000 people waiting in lines for water to drink, bathe, cook and flush toilets.

In Democratic-leaning Virginia, all 140 seats in the politically divided General Assembly will be on the ballot. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has been privately weighing a 2024 presidential bid, has pledged to help his party win full control of the legislature, though his plans to further limit abortions in the state could galvanize Democratic voters.

Republicans would need to hold their majority in the House of Delegates and, pending the outcome of a January special election, pick up as many as three seats for an outright Senate majority.

In New Jersey, a Democrat-led state where Republicans have been making steady gains in recent years, all 120 seats in the state legislature will be on the ballot, giving the GOP a chance to regain control for the first time in two decades. Democrats currently control 24 of 40 seats in the state Senate and 46 of 80 Assembly seats.

Intraparty differences will be the main feature of the biggest mayoral races of 2023, showcasing the divides between progressives and moderates in Democratic strongholds.

In Chicago, more than a half-dozen candidates are trying to oust Lightfoot. A Feb. 28 election will go to an April runoff if no candidate wins a majority in the officially nonpartisan election.

Lightfoot became the city’s first Black woman and first openly gay person to lead Chicago when she was elected in 2019. She first ran for office as a progressive and an outsider who would take on corruption at City Hall, but her first years in office also included a global pandemic and protests against police brutality.

Lightfoot’s opponents and other critics say her approach to governing has been too confrontational. She has said the criticism is due mostly to sexism and racism but has started to address it in her campaign, saying in her first campaign ad: “I’m only human. And I guess sometimes it shows. But just because somebody may not always like my delivery doesn’t mean we’re not delivering.”

Crime, which has played a substantial role in mayoral and gubernatorial elections around the country over the past two years, will be a major issue. While homicides have been down in Chicago in 2022 compared with previous years, the number is still higher than when Lightfoot took office. Concerns have grown about carjackings, shootings and other violence, particularly near downtown and other business and tourist areas.

Crime concerns are also dominating the mayoral race in Philadelphia, another Democratic stronghold. Mayor Jim Kenney is term-limited, and a crowded field is shaping up amid a surge of gun violence and a shortage of police officers. So far the Democratic primary field includes five former council members and the city controller, all of whom resigned their seats to run, along with at least one state lawmaker. No Republican has announced yet.

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Associated Press writers Bruce Schreiner in Frankfort, Ky.; Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Va.; Sara Burnett in Chicago; and Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia contributed to this report.