State Elections Aren’t All about Trump

Voters cast their ballots to vote in state and local elections at Robious Elementary School in Midlothian, a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, U.S. November 5, 2019. (Ryan M. Kelly/Reuters)
The GOP fared poorly in some contests last night, but that doesn’t mean that the president is doomed in 2020 — or that red states are shifting blue.

The biggest news from last night’s election contests was the Democratic party’s upset victory in Kentucky, where GOP governor Matt Bevin lost to the state’s attorney general, Andy Beshear. As of Wednesday morning, Beshear led the final count by just over 5,000 votes with 100 percent of precincts reporting and had declared victory, though the Associated Press had refused to call the race and Bevin had vowed to push for a recount.

It’s always worth noting when an incumbent loses his seat, but it’s even more interesting when that incumbent is a Republican in a state that has become solidly red at the national level. Even so, efforts to paint Bevin’s loss as a sign of a major realignment in Kentucky politics — or as a death knell for state Republicans on the ballot in next year’s general election, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — are off-base.

For one thing, Bevin is the most unpopular governor in the country, according to data from Morning Consult, which at last count found that just 32 percent of registered voters in the state approved of the job he was doing while 56 percent disapproved. Bevin fashioned himself in his 2015 bid for office as an outsider conservative willing to take on politically challenging tasks, and he followed through as governor, saying his policies were necessary even if they would cost him support. He attempted to push hugely unpopular reforms to the state’s pension and entitlement programs, as well as to its education system, earning him powerful enemies in both parties. His abrasive style turned off voters and legislators alike. These weaknesses were likely the biggest factor in his loss to Beshear, who had the added advantage of being the son of the man who served as Kentucky governor just before Bevin.

For another thing, until Bevin’s election in 2015, Democrats had held the governorship in Kentucky for almost the entirety of the past two decades. Though Bevin’s loss isn’t a great sign for the GOP, it also isn’t evidence that the party is collapsing in Kentucky, especially given that the other five major statewide contests last night went to Republicans. Republican attorney-general candidate Daniel Cameron, for instance, defeated his Democratic opponent by about 15 points, and in the process raked in well over 100,000 more votes than either Bevin or Beshear. Every other GOP candidate on the ballot won his or her contest by at least 15 points.

Republican wins weren’t confined to Kentucky. In Mississippi, GOP lieutenant governor Tate Reeves beat Democratic attorney general Jim Hood by a little more than six points, buoyed by the popularity of incumbent Republican governor Phil Bryant, who was term-limited. A win is a win, but a six-point margin is perhaps a bit disappointing in a state as red as Mississippi, where Bryant managed to top 60 percent in both of his campaigns for governor.

As Jim Geraghty notes in the latest Morning Jolt, the success of various GOP-led ballot initiatives in a number of states suggests that, despite the struggles of some Republican candidates, voters haven’t necessarily rejected everything conservatism has to offer:

Once again conservative ideas were much more popular when not associated with the Republican party. In Washington State, voters narrowly rejected bringing affirmative action back to state contracting and university admissions. Separately, in a non-binding referendum, voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea of applying retail sales taxes to online retailers. In Seattle, the self-proclaimed socialist city-council member appears to have lost her seat to a pro-business challenger. In Colorado, voters gave fiscal conservatives a big win by rejecting letting the state keep any tax revenues above the state spending cap, money that the state Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights currently guarantees as refunds to taxpayers. In Sussex County, N.J., voters approved, by a 2-to-1 margin, a referendum directing the local freeholder board to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Washington, Colorado, New Jersey — notice these are places where Republican candidates have had no luck lately.) Texans overwhelmingly passed a measure making it more difficult for the state to ever enact an income tax, by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.

Still, Bevin’s loss hurt for Republicans, and even more dispiriting news came in Virginia, where Democrats last night wrested away control of both the state house and the state senate from the GOP, which had held a tenuous majority in both chambers. It’s the first time since 1994 that the Democratic party has held the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature. And it was doubly embarrassing for Republicans given the recent turmoil that roiled Virginia Democrats. Just a few months ago, the state’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, admitted to having dressed either in blackface or a Ku Klux Klan robe — he didn’t specify which — in a photo on his medical-school yearbook page. Democratic attorney general Justin Fairfax, meanwhile, faced several credible allegations of sexual assault. Both men ignored widespread calls to resign, and Democratic state lawmakers failed to force them to do so. Yet Virginia voters just handed Democrats complete control of the state.

In Virginia, unlike in Kentucky, it’s hard to argue that the poor results for the GOP had nothing to do with President Trump. The trend toward supporting Democrats, particularly in the wealthy, populous northern Virginia suburbs, had been underway before Trump appeared on the scene, but it also has accelerated enormously during his tenure. But it makes little sense to blame the president entirely for the GOP’s woes, especially given the unpredictability of off-year elections.

While it’s fair to assume that Virginia, at least, will be out of reach for the GOP in 2020, former swing states Ohio and Florida seem likely to go to Trump once again, and Rust Belt states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania remain in reach for Republicans. It would be foolish to deny that Trump’s polarizing presence has had no ill effect on the fate of Republican candidates in a handful of states trending blue. But it would be more foolish still to ignore the electoral gains that the GOP has made in spite of — and in some cases because of — his presidency.


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