WASHINGTON — Democrats cleaned house in Virginia, grabbing full control of the state government for the first time in decades. In Kentucky, an unpopular, Trump-endorsed Republican governor appears to have lost by the thinnest of margins. But Kentucky Republicans won every other statewide race, and an establishment Republican cruised past a moderate Democrat in the Mississippi governor’s race.
Was Election Night 2019 a rebuke of President Trump after his failed intervention on behalf of Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin? Was it fresh evidence — looking at the Virginia and Kentucky results — that the Democratic path to victory in 2020 runs through the suburbs? Can we tell anything from what happened last night?
Let’s start with Virginia.
Democrats opened the year reeling from scandal. An old yearbook photo resurfaced apparently showing Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in blackface, followed by sexual assault allegations made against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and an admission by Attorney General Mark Herring that he, too, had once worn blackface. It helped of course that none of those three men were on the ballot Tuesday. But several bigger developments played into Democrats’ hands. A court threw out Virginia’s badly gerrymandered map for state legislative races; the new, fairer map meant more competitive races across the state. When Republicans refused to allow a debate on gun-safety legislation after the Virginia Beach mass shooting on May 31st, Democrats as well as outside groups including Everytown for Gun Safety saw an opportunity to use gun control — and the GOP’s deference to the NRA — as a winning issue. “What happened in Virginia Beach — and what didn’t happen afterward — set the stage for this election,” Everytown President John Feinblatt said on Wednesday. Feinblatt said Everytown invested $2.5 million in flipping legislative seats in Virginia this year and saw Tuesday’s sweeping victories as “a curtain-raiser for 2020.”
Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which focuses on state-level races across the country, says she saw several notable trends in the results. One was that the growing disapproval of President Trump and Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party made it easier down-ballot Democratic candidates to hitch Republican candidates to Trump. “Trump was used more literally in mail pieces because he is closer to the Republican brand than he was in 2017,” Post says. That tighter link, she says, will have implications for state and congressional races next year.
She also says Virginia’s blue sweep in Virginia tells another important story: Democrats have finally gotten their act together in state-level politics. During the eight years of Obama, Democrats lost a historic number of seats in state legislatures around the country. Those losses paved the way for gerrymandered election maps, rollbacks of reproductive rights, new voter suppression laws, and a host of other hardline, Koch-approved policies. It’s taken Democrats almost a decade to rebuild and regain ground in the states, but they’re close to pulling even: Going into Election Day 2019, Post says, Democrats trailed Republicans by just 202 state legislative seats nationwide.
“There was this theory that if you invested in the top of ticket it would trickle down to down-ballot races — but that doesn’t work in economics and it doesn’t work in politics,” she says. “You have to invest early, run an incredible ground game, and support Democratic messages that voters want to vote for like gun safety, Medicaid expansion, and public education.”
Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, says the Virginia results underscore what she calls a “realignment” underway in the state’s suburbs that has pushed Virginia more to the left. That realignment was driven by millennials and members of Generation Z who finished college, entered the workforce, and turned out to vote in the Trump era in a way they didn’t under Obama. That held true on Tuesday: Turnout in Virginia reportedly set a new record for a so-called off-off-year election. “The changing suburbs are like a demographic yule log that’s burning in the fire place,” Bitecofer says. “Right now, Trump is pouring kerosene all over that log.”
In Kentucky, the picture is less clear, but there are still parallels to be found.
At his rally in support of Bevin on Monday, President Trump said if Bevin lost “they are going to say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. You can’t let that happen to me!” On Wednesday, Trump took credit for the five out of six Republican victories in Kentucky — Bevin being the only loss. (Bevin, for his part, has yet to concede the race.) But calling Bevin’s defeat a referendum on Trump would overstate the case. Bevin killed the state’s popular health-care exchange, restricted access to Medicaid through new work requirements, and generally pushed to privatize government functions. By the time he stood for reelection, Bevin ranked as one of the least popular governors in America.
Still, he appears to have lost by 5,100 votes to Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat and the son of former two-term governor Steve Beshear. When looked at that way — a roundly disliked governor barely losing to the scion of a Kentucky dynasty — it’s harder to pull any sweeping generalizations from the result.
What’s worth noting, though, is a similar suburban shift on election night story in Kentucky. As MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki pointed out, the Kentucky-side suburbs of Cincinnati lurched leftward compared to the last gubernatorial election. Voter turnout surged as well in the suburbs of Louisville and Beshear won more voters there than Democrats had in recent elections.
So, what’s it all mean for next year? The week began with new polling from New York Times that suggests Trump remains popular and a formidable incumbent — regardless of the challenger — in battleground states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Think of Tuesday as a counterpoint of sorts: An unpopular and chaotic president continues to drag down his party in key parts of the electorate across the country, especially the suburbs.
“There’s nothing localized about what happened in Virginia last night,” Rachel Bitecofer says. “Turnout went way, way up. It didn’t go up like that because of Medicaid expansion or gun control. It went up because people are unsettled about Donald Trump. People are freaked out.”