elections of 2019

Off-Year Election Preview: Is It All About Partisanship?

Bevin and Beshear slug it out in the Bluegrass State.
Bevin and Beshear slug it out in the Bluegrass State. Photo: Getty Images/Shutterstock

Off-year elections, like special elections, mostly affect the scattered populations of people directly affected. But they are also interpreted — and over-interpreted — as national political harbingers. At a time when the national political landscape is dominated by the outsized personality of Donald J. Trump, odds are the elections of November 5 will be anxiously examined for what they mean for the prospect of ejecting Trump from office in 2020 or giving him four more harrowing years.

That’s not entirely inappropriate, though, because partisan polarization and the steady and continued decline in ticket-splitting is at least partially “nationalizing” state elections like those occurring in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Virginia on Tuesday (there is also a gubernatorial election in Louisiana this year, but the state has already held its nonpartisan “jungle primary” on October 12, and incumbent Democrat John Bel Edwards will face Republican Eddie Rispone in a November 16 runoff). Republicans have the most to lose, though, since they currently hold the governorships at stake in Kentucky and Mississippi, along with the two legislative chambers at risk in Virginia (there are also elections in New Jersey for the lower house of its legislature, but Democratic control is not in any danger). But you can be sure the GOP and conservative noise machine, led by the braggart-in-chief in the White House, will greet any and all victories as an omen for total victory in all 50 states next year.

Here’s a roundup of the most nationally significant races:

Kentucky: Can Partisanship Trump Popularity?

The Bluegrass State’s incumbent Republican governor, Matt Bevin, is one of those pols with an unattractive personality and unpopular policies. For quite some time he has been regularly featured in Morning Consult’s tracking polls of gubernatorial approval ratios as a contender for the title of America’s Most Unpopular Governor. MC’s latest quarterly numbers, as of last month, showed Bevin’s popularity inching up somewhat, but he’s still well underwater at 34/53 (a Mason-Dixon survey showed him doing better than that, at 45/48, but still underwater).

Let’s just stipulate that if he didn’t have an R next to his name in this increasingly red state (the Republican margin of victory in presidential races rose from 16 percent in 2008 to 22 percent in 2012 and then 29 percent in 2016), he’d probably be toast. As it was, he performed unimpressively in a primary earlier this year, beating state legislator Robert Goforth by a 52/39 margin. Goforth criticized Bevin’s unpopular efforts to cut public-sector pensions, which in turn contributed to the teacher’s strikes that further damaged the incumbent’s standing.

But Bevin is the Republican nominee, which has made him an even-money bet despite his chronic unpopularity (just like that other Kentuckian Mitch McConnell, who perpetually registers the lowest approval ratios of any U.S. senator but won his most recent election by a 56/41 margin). Democrats do have a strong candidate, Attorney General Andy Beshear, who narrowly won his office in 2015, as one of two Democratic statewide winners. He’s got high name ID as the son of former two-term governor (2007-2015) Governor Steve Beshear. Beshear had to overcome two strong rivals (former State Auditor Adam Edelen and conservative state legislator Rocky Adkins) to win the nomination. He’s been competitive with the incumbent in fundraising (and had tangible backing from NARAL Pro-Choice America and from the Kentucky Education Association, the main teacher’s union in the state), though Bevin had more cash-on-hand in the homestretch.

The campaign has been both nastily personal and ideological, as this report from the Louisville Courier-Journal in September illustrated:

The major candidates for governor exchanged some of the nastiest accusations of the campaign on Monday while offering contrasting appeals for the crucial support of teachers this November.

Democrat Andy Beshear touched off the bloody exchange in a 30-second campaign ad that asks viewers to imagine the closing of their public school.

“That could happen with Gov. Bevin’s budget cuts,” Beshear says in the ad.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin quickly responded with a press conference at the Governor’s Mansion and with a campaign video of his own that labels any suggestion that he doesn’t care about teachers “a load of horse manure.”

Bevin charged that Beshear’s ad is a “scare tactic” intended to distract voters and the news media from “the rampant corruption that has existed for a long time in the Beshear family.”

Beshear campaign manager Eric Hyers answered with a statement describing the Bevin press conference as “wild and unhinged.”

They’ve been slugging it out in court, too, as Beshear has tried to stop Bevin’s education budget cuts from being implemented.

Polls are showing a very close race; that Mason-Dixon poll mentioned above had Bevin and Beshear tied at 46 percent. Kentucky is not a big early-voting state (it requires an excuse to cast an absentee ballot), and turnout on November 5 is not expected to be high: 31 percent, according to the secretary of state — pretty much the percentage voting four years ago. Still, national media are wondering if the impeachment saga could have an impact, and Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Linda Blackford doubts it:

[I]f Bevin wins, it will prove finally that Kentucky has shed the last vestiges of its Democratic past. In other words, if Bevin, one of the most unpopular governors in the country who’s managed to annoy major voting blocs numerous times, still pulls it out on Tuesday, he can thank the popularity of Donald Trump and the fact he lives in a wholly red state. Democratic contenders for statewide office can hang it up for a few decades, or at least until Lexington and Louisville get big and blue enough to outweigh more red and rural areas.

So Beshear is hoping to combine an unusually strong showing in the state’s two biggest cities and then lose in smaller counties by smaller margins than other Democrats have often done.

Trump will conduct a rally with Bevin in Lexington on Monday. You can expect the president to reinforce local Republican efforts to make out the quite moderate Beshear as a baby-killing socialist stooge of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And he’ll remind everyone of his crucial role if the incumbent wins.

Mississippi: Can Hood Pull Off an Upset?

If Kentucky is a state trending red, Mississippi has been there a while thanks to partisan polarization of voters closely following the racial lines that have divided people there for time immemorial. But the state’s African-American population is large enough (37 percent of the voting-eligible population is black) to give Democrats a strong base, and a fighting chance in the right circumstances. They may have that on November 5, though they are still battling tough odds.

Republican nominee (and lieutenant governor) Tate Reeves isn’t as unpopular as Matt Bevin. But he’s far from being a beloved figure, either, and his rigidly conservative ideology (he’s opposed to any sort of Medicaid expansion, and also to a gas-tax increase for infrastructure investments that many Republicans favor) is doing him no favors in a competitive race. He struggled to win the nomination, and was knocked into a runoff with former state Supreme Court Justice Bill Waller, Jr., who had a more moderate platform. He survived the runoff by eight points. Meanwhile, Democrats have their strongest gubernatorial candidate in a good while in longtime Attorney General Jim Hood, first elected to his office in 2003, whom I described earlier this year:

Hood has been regularly winning statewide elections (his lowest share of the vote, in 2015, was 55 percent) at a time when Democrats have been dropping like flies in Mississippi. For a while, he was the only Democratic attorney general, governor, or secretary of state in the Deep South (Governor Jon Bel Edwards in next-door Louisiana…made Hood a lot less regionally lonely). Hood’s profile is one that used to be common for southern Democrats but is now increasingly rare: He’s solidly conservative on cultural issues (identifying as “pro-life and pro-gun”), and espouses an old-school anti-corporate populism that he highlights as the state’s chief legal officer. He has sued insurance companies that defrauded victims of Hurricane Katrina and pharmaceutical companies accused of fraudulent marketing practices. And he has battled Big Tech, notably Google, decrying anti-competitive practices and complicity in the opioid crisis.

Hood isn’t exactly Huey Long, but he is a far more colorful candidate than his opponent. But like Bevin, Reeves is benefitting from partisan trends and a visit from Trump (who won the state by nearly 18 points in 2016). He also has a pretty big financial advantage. The only public pollster in this race, Mason-Dixon, has shown Reeves gradually erasing an early Hood lead and pulling ahead (the latest survey gave him a 46/43 lead). But Reeves also has a two-pronged ace-in-the-hole: the state constitution provides that the state House (controlled by Republicans) will elect the governor if no general-election candidate wins a majority (entirely possible in a close race thanks to minor candidates), and further, that to win a candidate must carry a majority of the state House districts.

This second provision, a vestige of Jim Crow laws enacted as a firewall against black-voter influence, combined with Republican gerrymandering, means that (according to one estimate) Reeves could lose the popular vote by as much as nine points and still become governor. It has been challenged in federal court, and while the judge hearing the case refused to issue a preliminary injunction preventing use of the traditional system in this election, he did allow as how he might hear an effort to invalidate it if it decides the election.

All these thumbs on the scale for Reeves, however, led the Cook Political Report to rate the race as “Leans Republican.”

Virginia: Dems Fight for a Trifecta

In terms of partisan strength, Virginia is far more competitive than Kentucky or Mississippi. But there’s no question Democrats have had the recent momentum there, having carried the state in three straight presidential elections (by five points in 2016), with two consecutive gubernatorial wins (in 2013 and 2017) and a 4-0 record in U.S. Senate races since 2008. Still, in part thanks to gerrymandering, Republicans have had the upper hand in the state legislature, controlling the state House of Delegates since the 1999 election, and the state Senate in four of the last five election cycles (once via a tiebreaker).

In Democrats’ outstanding 2017 performance, they nearly won the House, losing one dead-even race on a lottery draw. The Senate, where Republicans held a narrow 21-19 margin, wasn’t up that year. In 2018, Democrats continued their gains in federal races, flipping three U.S. House seats, with particularly strong performance in suburban areas once dominated by Republicans, presumably thanks to the president’s deep unpopularity. The odds of Democrats flipping both legislative chambers took a hit earlier this year, however, thanks to the bizarre triple-headed series of scandals that hit the top three Democratic office-holders in Virginia (“blackface” scandals in the distant past for Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, and two accusations of sexual assault against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax).

But all three men survived the scandals (for now, at least), rebuffing demands that they resign their offices, and the danger to Democrats appears to have faded to a considerable extent, though there remains some fear of depressed African-American turnout. National issues seem to have eclipsed the Democratic scandals, and other Democrats have stepped up to conduct the barnstorming you’d normally expect from statewide elections, as Mark Adams recently noted:

Former Governor Terry McAuliffe and U.S. Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have stepped in, aided by a slew of out-of-state donations to Democrats. Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, environmentalist and impeachment advocate Tom Steyer, and other outside donors have saturated the state with contributions, raising the stakes in the most competitive races and allowing individual candidates to go their own way.

Republicans have tried to hold their seats by recasting themselves as very un-Trumpian moderates, but have in many cases given in to the temptation to get out their vote with the kind of savage and deceptive attacks on Democrats we’ve seen in places like Kentucky, as the Washington Post reported:

In crucial swing districts, from Northern Virginia to Richmond to Hampton Roads, Republican candidates are trying to turn out GOP voters while hoping they can hang on to the centrist images they cultivated all summer. To pull it off, they’re casting Democrats as extremists — invoking hot-button issues such as abortion and immigration that Republicans had largely avoided as they attempted to soften their connection to an unpopular President Trump.

This is not an easy balancing act to pull off, and the numbers are not looking good for the Virginia GOP, as Chaz Nuttycombe explained at the Virginia-based Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball:

The state Senate is nearly certain to flip Democratic because Democrats technically only need to win one seat in order to have Lt. Gov. Fairfax break ties, and Democrats are currently positioned to net two to four seats in the chamber.

The House of Delegates is slightly less likely, but Democrats are favored regardless….

[N]early a third of the seats in the chamber are competitive to at least some degree, and there are more competitive GOP-held seats than Democratic-held ones. Democrats look likely to hold all of the 49 seats they control in the chamber at the moment.

If Democrats do flip both legislative chambers, they will have their first governing trifecta in Virginia since 1993, and with the decennial redistricting on tap, the timing couldn’t be better. The last thing most vulnerable Republicans in the state want is any help from Donald Trump, though again, he will crow if the GOP does better than expected. And if they don’t? It won’t necessarily mean a lot in terms of 2020, since Republicans aren’t counting on Virginia’s 13 electoral votes. But similar suburban voters in other states could be the ballgame.

Off-Year Election Preview: Is It All About Partisanship?