You wouldn’t think that a random Tuesday in an odd year would be full of interesting elections. But that’s exactly what we’re getting on May 16: The field will be set for arguably this fall’s most competitive election; Republicans will try to retain their grip on the mayoralty of one of the only major cities they still govern; and moderate and progressive Democrats will face off in the latest skirmish of their nationwide war for big-city city halls. Here’s everything you need to know about who’s on the ballot in — and who might emerge victorious from — Tuesday’s elections.
Races to watch: Governor
Polls close: 6 p.m. Eastern in the eastern half of the state, 7 p.m. Eastern in the western half
Three states hold gubernatorial elections in the year before presidential elections, and the closest of those in 2023 is expected to be in Kentucky, a strongly Republican-leaning state with a well-liked Democratic governor. Tuesday’s Republican primary will determine who will take on incumbent Andy Beshear, one of the most popular governors in the country, in November.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron started the primary as the far-and-away front-runner. A protégé of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Cameron was already a rising GOP star even before former President Donald Trump endorsed him for governor in June 2022. But Cameron has been drawn into a competitive race by Trump’s own former U.N. ambassador, Kelly Craft — and, more specifically, her wallet.
Craft, who was previously a prolific GOP donor, has donated $9.4 million to her own campaign, which she has used to blanket the state with TV ads (including one memorable ad in which “woke bureaucrats” literally parachute into a school to teach students critical race theory). She also drew criticism when it turned out that an “empty chair at my table” she had mentioned in an ad on the opioid crisis referred to a family member who had gone to rehab, not died. Still, her advertising blitz appeared to rocket her into contention, as a Emerson College/WDKY-TV poll from April 10-11 found Cameron leading her just 30 percent to 24 percent.
Since early April, however, a super PAC supporting Cameron has fired back with $2.1 million in advertising of its own. And a third candidate, state Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles, has gotten in on the action: In an unusual strategy, Quarles kept his powder dry for much of the campaign, amassing a $903,000 war chest by April 16, and didn’t air his first TV ad until April 26. Since then, though, he has released positive ad after positive ad playing up his rural Kentucky background and presenting himself as above the fray of Cameron and Craft’s attacks on each other. However, the latest Emerson poll of the race (conducted May 10-12) suggests it hasn’t been enough. The poll pegged Cameron at 35 percent support, Craft at 18 percent and Quarles at 15 percent.
Races to watch: Jacksonville mayor
Polls close: 7 p.m. Eastern
Not many major U.S. cities have Republican mayors anymore, but Jacksonville, Florida, is one of them. In fact, it holds the distinction of being the most populous city in America with a Republican mayor.
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That distinction, however, could soon come to an end. Incumbent Mayor Lenny Curry is term-limited, and Democrat Donna Deegan and Republican Daniel Davis are locked in a close race to succeed him. According to an April 10-11 poll from the University of North Florida Public Opinion Research Lab, 48 percent of likely voters supported Deegan, and 47 percent supported Davis. However, the latest campaign-finance reports indicate that Davis outspent Deegan $1.5 million to $256,000 in the month of April. And Jacksonville remains a Republican-leaning jurisdiction: In the first round of voting in this election, an all-party primary on March 21, Republican candidates combined for 51 percent of the vote, while Democratic candidates combined for 48 percent. That said, that was Democrats’ best first-round performance in a Jacksonville mayoral election in 28 years. Historically, runoff electorates in the city have also tended to be bluer than the first round, although that could just be due to random chance (the sample size is just four elections).
Though it’s never a good idea to read too much into any one election result, the outcome here could be a data point in a couple of actively raging debates. The first regards whether public safety is a winning issue for Republicans: Crime was by far the top concern of voters in the UNF poll, and the candidates talked about it nonstop on the campaign trail. And the second regards whether Democrats have a path to winning Florida in future elections. While Republicans’ gains in places like Miami-Dade and Osceola counties in 2020 and 2022 got all the headlines, in 2020, President Biden became the first Democrat to carry Jacksonville’s Duval County in a presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976. If Democrats can win this heavily suburban county more consistently, it could light the way forward for the party in the state.
Races to watch: Philadelphia mayor
Polls close: 8 p.m. Eastern
Philadelphia, meanwhile, hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1947, so Tuesday’s Democratic primary will effectively decide who succeeds term-limited Mayor Jim Kenney in Philadelphia’s ornate City Hall. The race is a total free-for-all: Nine Democrats are actively running, and five were within striking distance of first place in the most recent independent poll of the race, conducted May 7-9 by Emerson College/WPHL-TV.
Former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart is perhaps the weak favorite. She netted 20 percent in that poll and was also at least tied for first in three other polls, two of which were internal polls from rival campaigns — a good sign given how internal polls tend to exaggerate support for the candidate who sponsors them. A policy wonk whose base is upscale liberals, she sports the endorsements of three former mayors and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
But former City Councilmember Helen Gym (who clocked in at 23 percent in the Emerson College poll) has developed a passionate following among local progressives with her activism and successful passage of liberal legislation. She’s been endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to whom she’s sometimes compared. But her outspoken liberalism has earned her some enemies, too: A super PAC funded by a major Republican donor has spent six figures on TV ads attacking her.
Former City Councilmember Charelle Parker looks formidable as well. She took 21 percent in the Emerson poll and is part of a powerful coalition of politicians from high-turnout Northwest Philadelphia. She’s also the only one of the five major candidates who is Black — in a city whose population is 41 percent Black.
Rhynhart, Gym and Parker would each be Philadelphia’s first female mayor (Gym would also be its first Asian American mayor), and each has also raised around $2 million since January 2022. But their fundraising has been dwarfed by two self-funding businessmen: former City Councilmember Allan Domb and grocery-store owner Jeff Brown.
Known as the “condo king” of Philadelphia, Domb owns more than 400 properties in the city and has a centrist, business-friendly record. He has poured $10.2 million of his own money into his campaign (on top of the $1.6 million he has received from donors), but that hasn’t seemed to translate yet into dominant support: He got 17 percent in the Emerson poll.
Finally, Brown has raised the most money from donors ($2.5 million) and self-funded an additional $4 million, and the super PAC supporting him has spent more than any other ($2.8 million). But he’s seen as losing momentum in the race after a number of controversies. He made a disparaging comment about a majority-Black suburb in a debate, and he has been accused of illegally coordinating with his super PAC, forcing it to stop spending on his behalf three weeks before the election. He finished fifth in the Emerson poll with 12 percent.
With crime also a top issue in this race, analysts may be tempted to draw conclusions about the mood of voters from this race as well. But Philadelphia’s mayoral race is different from other recent high-profile battles between the factions of the Democratic Party (in places like New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago) in that it doesn’t have a runoff. That means that the winning candidate doesn’t need to get 50 percent support — and in fact, in a field this crowded, he or she probably won’t. Based on the polls, it’s possible that someone will win the Democratic primary — and therefore all but clinch the election — with as little as 25 percent of the vote. Therefore, the policies of Philadelphia’s next mayor may not necessarily reflect what a majority of voters there want.