Just over a year before the 2024 elections, three races for governor in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi are offering a window into the parties’ political strategies and how they might approach statewide and congressional contests next year.
Strikingly, even as former President Donald J. Trump’s indictments and President Biden’s polling struggles have consumed the national political conversation, the two men rarely show up in advertising for the three governor’s races.
Since July, nearly 150 ads have been broadcast across the contests. Just one ad mentioned Mr. Trump. Three brought up Mr. Biden.
Instead, the ads focus largely on issues like education, the economy, jobs and taxes, according to an analysis of ad spending data from AdImpact, a media-tracking firm. Attack ads about local scandals and controversies are frequent, and crime is the top advertising issue in the Kentucky governor’s race.
Much as education was a dominant theme in Glenn Youngkin’s successful campaign for governor of Virginia in 2021, the issue remains one of the top advertising topics in both Kentucky and Louisiana, with nearly one in five ad dollars spent focusing on education over the past 60 days, according to AdImpact data.
“Glenn Youngkin winning an off-year gubernatorial race in Virginia is the playbook,” said Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco who has researched political advertising. “You go with the last playbook.”
Allies of Daniel Cameron, the Republican looking to unseat Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, have seized on a message about education similar to the one that helped propel Mr. Youngkin to victory.
“The radical left has declared war on parents, and Andy Beshear is with them,” proclaims one ad from Kentucky Values, a group affiliated with the Republican Governors Association.
Mr. Beshear has countered by praising teachers, running an ad calling them “heroes” and pledging to increase their pay and expand universal preschool.
“Our teachers are heroes, and public schools are the backbones of our communities,” Mr. Beshear says in the ad, standing in the middle of a classroom.
Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi, a Republican running for re-election, is running an ad boasting that he “got us back to school fast” during the coronavirus pandemic and criticizing other states for closing schools.
In Louisiana, Jeff Landry, the Republican front-runner, is putting money behind an ad criticizing “woke politics” in schools and pledging to bring school agendas “back to basics.”
No issue is getting more attention, in terms of total spending, than crime is in Kentucky. Twenty-five percent of ad spending in the state has focused on crime in the past month, according to AdImpact data.
Ads from allies of Mr. Cameron warn of dangerous criminals flooding the streets as a result of a commutation program Mr. Beshear signed during the pandemic.
Of course, these three states are all deep-red bastions in the South and are not representative of the country’s broader politics.
Abortion, perhaps the biggest issue in major battleground states, is barely registering in these three governor’s races; in the past 30 days, not a single campaign ad has been broadcast on the topic in Kentucky or Louisiana. In Mississippi, the only ad regarding abortion is from Brandon Presley, the Democratic nominee for governor, who has diverged from many in his party by supporting abortion restrictions.
“Sometimes the family Bible is the only place you have to turn,” Mr. Presley says, sitting at a table next to a dog-eared Bible that he says is his family’s. “It’s shaped who I am and what I believe. It’s why I’m pro-life.”
Given that Mr. Trump carried all three states by double digits in 2020, his absence from the airwaves shows he may not be helpful to Republican campaigns in a general election.
“These campaigns are really smart and have done in-depth analytics on who their target voter is who’s actually going to move in this election, and he’s probably not helpful to that group of people,” said Michael Beach, the chief executive of Cross Screen Media, a media analytics firm.
That one mention of Mr. Trump? It was in an ad from Mr. Beshear, the Democratic governor of Kentucky, boasting that he had followed the former president’s lead in releasing prison inmates early.