More broadly: Railing against impeachment and attacking Democrats as “socialists” won’t get the job done for Republicans when the GOP finds itself on the wrong end of questions such as health care and education.
Tuesday’s elections were terrible for Republicans. Their only major victory came in Mississippi, where they held onto the governorship in the face of a spirited Democratic challenge. But face it: The day Mississippi falls out of the Republican base is the moment when the party goes the way of the Whigs.
Beshear’s victory, assuming it holds, was both revealing and important because Trump and incumbent Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) chose to make the race a referendum on the president. Trump offered a sound bite for the ages when he declared at a Bevin rally on the eve of the election: “If you lose, they’re gonna say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. You can’t let that happen to me.”
Well, it looks like they did. And the contours of Kentucky’s voting sent an important message to Democrats as they go into 2020. Mobilizing your natural constituency matters, but so does winning back restive voters who backed the president in 2016, and so does continuing to make inroads into the suburbs.
Turnout in Kentucky’s Democratic strongholds was through the roof for an off-off-year election. In Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, Beshear won 186,510 votes, nearly 100,000 more than Bevin. Four years ago, Jack Conway, the defeated Democratic candidate for governor, also carried the county, but with only 112,232 votes — and by half of Beshear’s margin.
But Beshear also flipped many rural counties and cut the Republicans’ margins in others. Typical was Carter County in eastern Kentucky. The county went for Beshear even though it backed Bevin four years ago and gave Trump 73.8 percent of its ballots in 2016. Breathitt County in Appalachia also flipped, having gone for Bevin and voted 69.6 percent for Trump.
“Andy focused a lot on education and especially health care, and that cut through a lot of the partisanship,” said Fred Yang, Beshear’s pollster, noting his candidate’s criticism of Bevin’s efforts to narrow the expansion of Medicaid and the incumbent’s fights with the state’s teachers.
“In a lot of these counties, the school systems or the hospitals — or both — are the biggest employers,” said Fred Cowan, a former Kentucky attorney general and a Democratic political veteran. “The Medicaid expansion helped a lot of people over there.”
Finally, Beshear was buoyed by the suburban shift toward Democrats since Trump’s election, reflected in his success in taking two key northern Kentucky counties, Campbell and Kenton, in the Cincinnati suburbs that voted for Bevin in 2015 and for Trump a year later.
The flight of suburban voters from the GOP was also central to the Democrats’ success in seizing both houses of the Virginia legislature. In an effort likely to be a model for other states, supporters of gun safety rallied against a GOP that had blocked new regulations. Everytown for Gun Safety, founded by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, swamped the NRA in spending by about 8 to 1. Democrats also made historic gains in less-watched local contests in Bucks and Delaware counties in the Philadelphia suburbs — a warning sign for Trump, who carried the state narrowly in 2016.
Trump’s failure to rally Republicans with his anti-impeachment message in Kentucky — a state the president carried by 30 points and that is home to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), up for reelection next year — should give Republicans pause about a Trump-centric approach to their own political futures.
For Democrats, the lesson is to continue their 2018 midterm successes in highlighting the kitchen-table issues Beshear touted in declaring victory. He called health care “a basic human right,” pledged to restore voting rights to some felons and promised to make public education his “central priority.”
His catalogue sent what might have been Tuesday’s central message: A majority is frustrated with Trump not only because of his obvious transgressions but also because his time in office has been marked by a wholesale retreat from public problem-solving. Voters want elections to be about them, not the narcissist in the White House.