Three Takeaways From Tuesday's Elections
Tuesday night’s elections were, on their own terms, good for Democrats. Democrats now occupy all statewide offices in Virginia and control the legislature, seemingly solidifying the state’s transition to “blue” status. Democrats picked up the Kentucky governor’s mansion, and kept the Mississippi governor’s race in single digits. Democrats are naturally ecstatic, with some suggesting that Sen. Mitch McConnell might be vulnerable in his reelection bid next year.
Yet we should also recall that these are off-year elections in just three states. Our takeaways should be limited and careful. Here are three.
Local issues and personalities predominated. House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum that “all politics is local” is certainly much less true today than it was 40 years ago, but it still has its applications in politics today. And in all of these races, local factors played important, and in some cases dispositive, roles.
Take Kentucky. It is true that Matt Bevin’s narrow loss was something of a surprise in such a deeply red state. But we should be particularly careful about overinterpreting the results. Bevin was controversial to begin with -- an outsider candidate who defeated the party’s more moderate preferred candidate in the 2015 Republican primary.
Once in office he continued to govern without paying much heed to public opinion; in particular he angered teacher unions and pushed for cuts to Medicaid. Democrats, for their part, nominated Andy Beshear, the son of popular former Gov. Steve Beshear. In many ways, this was a flashback to the New Democrat/Gingrich Republican battles of the 1990s, rather than a modern fight.
Finally, we should note that Republicans handily captured every other statewide office in Kentucky, and won the attorney general’s office for the first time since the 1940s. This would not seem to suggest that there is a major realignment in the Bluegrass State; if the rest of the GOP slate had gone down to defeat, or even been held to tight races, it might be a different story.
In Mississippi it is a similar story. It is true that Republican Tate Reeves won with the lowest vote share in a gubernatorial race for a Republican since 1999. But he was facing Jim Hood, a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat who had served as the state’s attorney general since 2003 and was the lone Democratic statewide officeholder for years. Since 2003, the Democratic nominees for governor have had resumes of “trial lawyer,” “Mayor of Hattiesburg,” and “truck driver.” In other words, Hood was the strongest Democratic nominee in decades and was a good fit for the state; it is wholly unsurprising that he performed well.
Even in Virginia, Democrats were helped by a court decision invalidating a number of House districts in the Tidewater area. To be sure, however, Democrats would have seized control of the legislature even without this decision, which leads us to our second point.
The suburban shift is real. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, David Byler and I wrote a series suggesting that the urban/suburban/rural divide was a fast-emerging, and understudied, cleavage in American politics. This cleavage has widened into a chasm, with previously Republican suburbs swinging toward Democrats and throwing elections into disarray.
At the same time, Democrats continue to lose ground in rural areas. In most states east of the Mississippi River, there are a lot of votes cast in rural areas, which can keep Republicans afloat for some time. Consider Kentucky:
The circles in this chart represent Kentucky counties, sized according to the number of votes cast. The horizontal axis represents how the county voted in the 2015 gubernatorial election, minus 4.5%. The rationale here is that Bevin won statewide by about nine points here, so he could afford to lose 4.5 percentage points off of his vote share statewide and still win. The vertical axis is the 2019 Republican vote share. The diagonal line is the “break-even” line; if the county is above the line, Bevin exceeded the vote share he needed to win. If the county is below the line, Bevin is falling short. If every county in Kentucky landed on the line, it would be an extremely close race.
As you can see, the top triangle in the map is flooded with circles; Bevin exceeded his mark in most rural Kentucky counties. But the circles that fall below the line are bigger. The two circles in the bottom left below the line represent Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington) counties. Falling short there hurt Bevin more than running significantly ahead in many smaller counties. What really killed Bevin, though, was his underperformance in the Cincinnati suburbs; his substantial loss of ground in Boone, Kenton, and Campbell counties is probably what doomed him (losing ground in Oldham County, in the wealthy Louisville suburbs, hurt as well).
In Mississippi it is a similar story:
Reeves hit his marks much more consistently, but the larger counties fall right at, or below, the line. But Mississippi is much more heavily rural than is Kentucky, and so it didn’t matter as much.
Finally, in Virginia the GOP was wiped out in the suburbs. The transformation of Fairfax County from the core of the Virginia Republican Party to a Democratic stronghold seems to be complete now, with the outer suburban counties close behind. Suburban counties in smaller jurisdictions like Henrico (Richmond) are behaving similarly. In a heavily suburban state like Virginia, these sorts of transformations make it very difficult for the GOP to win.
These outcomes are consistent with 2017. As a final thought, to the extent that there are any national implications to these races, it would be something like this: This outcome is roughly consistent with what we saw in 2017. In particular, the failure of the GOP in Virginia to wrest back any of the seats that it lost, even to seemingly accidental House of Delegates candidates, suggests that the environment hasn’t improved. And even weak Republican candidates, such as Bevin, will win in red states in good GOP environments. These outcomes are local, but they do suggest that the GOP hasn’t yet turned a corner for 2020.