With voting completed in the Georgia Senate run-off, the 2022 election season is finally coming to an end.
But don’t worry, the 2023 and 2024 seasons are already underway as politicians and pundits prepare for statewide races in Kentucky next year and national elections the following year. Plus, there’s a lame-duck Congress to navigate before Republicans take control of the U.S. House of Representatives in January.
Incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock’s apparent victory in Georgia gives Democrats a 51-49 advantage in the Senate. University of Kentucky political science Professor Stephen Voss says that means Democrats will get more of their members on committees, and they will get to set the rules for the chamber.
Although Sen. Mitch McConnell will not become majority leader as he had hoped, Voss says the Kentuckian will still wield significant power because Senate operations depend on the minority and majority leaders working together.
“A minority leader has a lot more power in the U.S. Senate than in the House of Representatives,” says Voss.
McConnell will continue as leader of Republicans in the Senate after easily defeating a challenge by Florida Sen. Rick Scott. GOP strategist Ellen Williams says McConnell will be “laser-focused” on legislating during the final days of the lame-duck session. She says much work remains on issues like defense spending, electoral reform, and keeping the government open.
What Kentucky’s senior senator won’t do, according to Williams, is get drawn into a confrontation with former President Donald Trump over his controversial statements about the 2020 election or his recent dinner with Kanye West and white nationalist Nick Fuentes.
“Mitch McConnell, if nothing, is about timing, focus, discipline,” says Williams. “He could make a lot of headlines by getting into verbal warfare with Donald Trump, but it serves no purpose and it divides his caucus because he has quite a few members that are big Trump supporters.”
But the reluctance of Republican leaders to directly rebuke the former president is a critical failure, according to Democratic strategist Mike Ward. He says it was Republican leaders in the Senate who forced former President Richard Nixon to resign at the height of the Watergate scandal. Now, Ward says, McConnell and other Republicans must stand up to the threats to democracy and civility posed by Trump.
“Mitch McConnell loves being called the leader,” says Ward. “Well, there are times in our lives when you have to lead, even if it’s a risk, even if you take the chance of losing an election, and this is the time to be the leader.”
New Roles for Kentuckians in the House
Republicans did manage to swing the House, where California Congressman Kevin McCarthy is poised to become speaker in January – if he can secure the requisite 218 votes among a GOP caucus that will number 222 members ranging from moderates to Trump-supporting election deniers.
“There was some talk that perhaps they would have to come up with a compromise candidate with Democrats,” says Eastern Kentucky University government Professor Anne Cizmar. “I think, though, that is very distasteful to the Republicans in House.”
Kentucky 1st district Congressman James Comer is in line to chair the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The Republican has pledged to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, actions of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Myorkas, and President Joe Biden’s family business dealings, including possible influence peddling by the president’s son, Hunter.
“James Comer is going to do a great job on this committee... He’s going to be focused, he’ll be disciplined as well, and he’s a fighter,” says Williams. “He’s going to hold the administration accountable and try to maintain some transparency in some of these big dealings that go on so that they’re not swept under the rug.”
But some question whether Comer’s investigations will gain traction with Americans more worried about inflation, the job market, and crime.
“I think all these oversight hearings are the inside the beltway stuff that most people just don’t care about,” says Voss.
“He will appeal to a particular audience with the type of investigations he has announced,” adds Cizmar. “An audience that is perhaps very conservative, an audience of people who have been talking about Hunter for the entirety of the last two-and-a-half years, but I don’t think that’s what average Americans have been talking about.”
Comer may not have total control over what the oversight panel investigates, says Ward who is a former Congressman from Kentucky’s 3rd district. He says far-right members of the GOP caucus may force a Speaker McCarthy and Comer to examine specious claims for strictly partisan purposes. Plus, Ward argues Comer’s work will provide a good distraction from moves by Republicans to try to cut Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare benefits.
“This is to their advantage to have a committee that will bring up just the biggest red herrings in the world to avoid talking about what they’re doing with the other hand,” says Ward.
But Republicans aren’t the only ones who use investigations to try to drive political narratives. Voss says Democrats hoped the Select Committee on the January 6 attack would give their party an advantage in the midterm elections. That group has done important work, he says, but he also contends it failed to do much to motivate voters this year.
Kentucky’s Congressional delegation will feature a new member next year. State Sen Morgan McGarvey, a Democrat from Louisville, will succeed retiring 3rd District Rep. John Yarmuth in Washington.
Ward says McGarvey’s experience working with Republican supermajorities in Frankfort to pass 18 bills will serve him well when he faces the new GOP majority in the U.S. House. He says McGarvey will also have good opportunities to bond with Democratic leaders who no longer have to focus on chairing House committees.
“Morgan, as John Yarmuth before him, takes the view that he is Kentucky’s Democratic congressman and needs to watch out for the entire state,” says Ward. “Kentucky has plenty of problems and we need to work together to solve those problems, and that’s the kind of guy Congressman McGarvey will be.”
Kentuckians now have less than a month to file to run for statewide constitutional offices in 2023. Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, officially announced is bid for reelection this week, while the Republican gubernatorial field has swelled to a dozen contenders.
Voss says Trump-minded voters in the GOP primary will be able to select from a woman who worked for the former president (Ambassador Kelly Craft), a man who gained his endorsement (Attorney General Daniel Cameron), and several who hope to emulate his far-right pugilistic political style (including state Rep. Savannah Maddox and retired northern Kentucky attorney Eric Deters). Other announced candidates include Auditor Mike Harmon, Somerset Mayor Alan Keck, and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.
“Who knows how that vote ultimately gets subdivided with that many candidates in the race,” says Voss. “When you can win the nomination for a major office with a fairly small percentage of the vote of the small percentage of your society that turned out, it’s not really democracy at that point.”
In the hotly contested GOP gubernatorial primary in 2015, only 13 percent of registered Republicans went to the polls, according to Williams. That race saw businessman Matt Bevin win the nomination by just 83 votes. Now some pundits believe the former governor is considering a second bid for office.
“How does he not run with such a scattered field, knowing he just has to get a simple plurality,” says Ward.
Cizmar says she expects Beshear to tout his connections to President Biden and the projects and federal aid he’s secured with the help of the Democrat’s administration. She says she’s curious to see if Republicans nationalize the race by tying Beshear to Biden since they can no longer use outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as “bogeywomen.”
“I definitely think it will get this national flavor, but I’m actually curious as well to see what that will look like from the Republican side,” says Cizmar. “They don’t have maybe some of the traditional foils that they can use in the election.”
Williams says Republicans hope Beshear “cozies up” with Biden, arguing that it’s GOP policies that have boosted the state’s economy in recent years. But she also acknowledges that Kentucky’s off-year gubernatorial election is often seen as a bellwether for presidential elections the following year.
“If Andy Beshear should win, does that bode well for a Democrat in the White House?” says Williams. “I think the stakes are really, really high for the governorship next year for Republicans to win.”
A number of familiar faces have already announced for other statewide offices, including current Kentucky Treasurer Allison Ball for auditor, former Deputy Treasurer OJ Oleka for treasurer, former state Rep. Jonathan Shell of Lancaster for Agriculture Commissioner, and former U.S. Attorney Russell Coleman for attorney general.
On the Democratic side, state Rep. Pamela Stevenson of Louisville announced late last month that she will run for attorney general. Candidates have until 4 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 6 to file for statewide office.
As those campaigns swing into full gear, state lawmakers will convene in Frankfort for the 2023 General Assembly. Williams says the Republican supermajorities will make tax policy a top agenda item for the 30-day session
“The first vote that you’re going to see taken by both House and Senate members in the General Assembly is to drop the personal income tax rate a half a percent,” says Williams. “I think people will like that.”
Ward contends that such a cut will only benefit the wealthiest Kentuckians, and will force Republicans to find ways to make up for the lower state tax revenues that will result.
“The vast majority of Kentuckians… they’re not going to see a change in their take-home pay,” says Ward. “But they will see a change when they buy things and have to pay a larger sales tax, which is going to be the only solution.”