2019 as Precursor to 2020? Results Say Yes, No, and Maybe
As Washington braces for next week’s kickoff of public hearings on impeachment, Tuesday’s off-year elections in Kentucky and Virginia offered preliminary answers to two tantalizing questions hanging over the current political environment.
First, will Democratic candidates pay a political price for trying to remove President Trump from office? An early answer from Virginia: No.
Second, is there Trumpism -- or only Trump? In other words, can Donald Trump’s ideology exist without Donald Trump himself? Another early answer, this one from Kentucky: No.
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin tried making the race into a referendum on impeachment. It didn’t work, and he fell behind Democratic candidate Andy Beshear. The challenger won 709,577 votes while the incumbent earned 704,388. According to unofficial results from the Kentucky Board of Elections, Beshear now leads Bevin by 5,189 votes.
Even late into election night, the Associated Press said the race was too close to call. Beshear declared victory anyway while a belligerently on-brand Bevin refused to concede.
And while avenues exist for the governor to contest the results, it seems likely that the Republican just lost reelection in a state that President Trump carried by a whopping 30 percentage points. The vote offers insight, a year in advance, into what might happen during the next general election.
“It’s a big [frigging] deal,” one senior Democratic National Committee official told RealClearPolitics late Tuesday night. “Trump spent big there and lost.”
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez agreed the next morning but with more polite language, telling reporters that Kentucky is a sign of things to come.
“We believe that our diversity is our greatest strength,” he said of the campaign that carried Beshear to an apparent victory. “And Mr. President, when you continue to divide America, that is not only un-American, that is going to prove to be terrible politics for you, because that's not who we are.”
Even Trump admitted a loss in Kentucky would look bad, and he knew Bevin was making a gamble by tying his fate to the controversy over impeachment. “If you win, they are going to make it like, ‘ho-hum,’” Trump warned at a rally the night before the election. “And if you lose, they are going to say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world.” A loss would be a disaster, he warned Bevin: “You can't let that happen to me!”
But the one-term governor lost anyway, and there was more bad news for Republicans in Virginia. There, Democrats picked up two state Senate seats and six House seats. If that electorate had any qualms with removing Trump from office early, it didn’t stop them from handing both chambers of the legislature over to the impeaching party. The state Trump lost by five points in 2016 is now entirely blue. (Gov. Ralph Northam is also a Democrat.)
Other developments disheartening for the GOP followed in Pennsylvania where Democrats won local races in districts that will be coveted come 2020.
The night wasn’t entirely bleak for the Grand Old Party. Republican Tate Reeves (pictured) won his race in Mississippi to keep the governor’s mansion red. And in Kentucky, Republicans were elected attorney general, treasurer, auditor, secretary of state and agricultural commissioner. Each contest was easy for the GOP, except for Bevin’s at the top of the ballot.
A second Bevin term was always questionable in a state where voters have only elected three Republican governors since the Second World War. He also earned the ignoble designation, according to a Morning Consult analysis, of being the least popular governor in the country. This was probably because he feuded with teacher unions and reorganized public pensions and beefed with the media. It was also because, some are now arguing, Bevin did his best to be a bluegrass version of the New Yorker president.
But before votes were counted, it only made sense to Bevin to do his best Trump impression. He did that by trying to put impeachment on the ballot.
“Governor Bevin is not the one making impeachment an issue. Impeachment already is a big issue in Kentucky because congressional liberals are trying to invalidate the 2016 election, which saw President Trump win Kentucky by 30 points,” Michael Antonopoulos, a senior adviser to the campaign, told RCP a month before the election. “The real question is whether Andy Beshear agrees with 95% of House Democrats that President Trump should be removed from office.”
That argument boiled down to an us vs. them calculation. Was Beshear with 118 (out of 120) Kentucky counties that voted for Trump? Or with House Democrats who voted to begin an impeachment inquiry? The electorate, who voted overwhelmingly for other Republicans, didn’t buy the premise.
Their temperature will be taken again in less than a year when the president’s name – barring removal from office -- is actually printed on the ballot. Even the boldest pundits don’t yet dare whisper that he would lose Kentucky. Trump the politician, it seems safe to say, will be secure in deep red states. But the candidates who wrap themselves in Trumpism and accept his endorsement haven’t always met with populist success.
Trump endorsed 96 candidates during the last midterms. He averaged 58% success with 56 of those Republicans winning and 40 losing. His clout is still up in the air in 2019. He endorsed Ralph Abraham for governor in Louisiana, who lost in the “jungle” primary on Oct. 12, and Bevin in Kentucky, who appears to have lost. Tate Reeves won his race for governor in Mississippi, but Eddie Rispone could win or lose in his effort to unseat Democrat John Bel Edwards as Louisiana governor when the runoff is held Nov. 16. Trump has called special elections perfectly this year, going three for three.
That record, plus the sheer weight of a presidential endorsement, will make his nod valuable. And it isn’t as if Trump support makes a candidate a political pariah. White House Senior Adviser Kellyanne Conway made sure to hammer this point home.
Surrounded by reporters on the driveway of the president’s residence, Conway said that, yes, Bevin lost but noted he was out-funded by Democrats. If anything, she insisted, Trump helped make that race more competitive. He also helped make some history: The president endorsed Daniel Cameron for state attorney general.
“First independently statewide-elected African American in Kentucky's history,” Conway told reporters before sarcastically chiding that “I'm sure you'll all be writing about the history that was made yesterday in Kentucky."
But Cameron is soft-spoken where Bevin was bombastic. That, and Cameron won a race that was never billed by Republicans as a national referendum on the man in the Oval Office.