Will today’s state elections be ‘Trumped up?’
Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s adage about the primacy of local politics will be tested in today’s elections in three states. You can make a case that all politics are national now, thanks both to Donald Trump and to overarching issues that transcend state boundaries. In the case of two of the contests — gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and Mississippi — Trump and his party are praying that the national overwhelms everything else to save weak Republican nominees. The president is campaigning in both races, hoping to show GOP politicians that, when it comes to the base, he is still magic.
This could matter a great deal if the House impeaches him and Republican senators have to decide whether to remove him from office.
But in Virginia’s battle for control of the state Legislature, a national tide would likely lift Democrats. And if Republicans lose one or both chambers, count their alliance with the gun lobby and their opposition to reasonable firearms restrictions as key reasons. The NRA is definitely on the state’s ballot.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that.
For example: The issues driving Kentucky’s Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear’s strong challenge to unpopular Republican Gov. Matt Bevin are concerns that have worked for Democrats at all levels: health care and education.
In Virginia’s state legislative races, many Republicans are trying to blunt the Democrats’ appeal by echoing Democratic messaging on guns and, again, education. Once upon a time, Democrats won in Virginia by sounding like Republicans. Now, Republicans are trying to hang on by sounding like Democrats.
And in Mississippi — yes, Mississippi — a Democrat is within striking distance of winning the governorship by hewing to conservative positions on social issues while running as an economic populist.
It is a tribute to the wide appeal of Mississippi’s Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood that he has been running almost neck and neck with Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, despite the popularity of incumbent Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who is term-limited. But Hood (still, it should be said, an underdog) has also been willing to go straight at what is usually a GOP strength: tax cuts.
“Since 2012, Reeves has handed out $765 million in tax giveaways, mainly to benefit large, out-of-state corporations,” Hood says. “When politicians crow about how many times they’ve cut taxes, look at your own pocketbook to see how much tax relief you’ve gotten.”
For Democratic presidential candidates, it’s worth pondering that building on Obamacare is increasingly popular in Republican states.
Beshear has been defending the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act put in place by his father, former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear. The younger Beshear argues that Bevin’s proposed work requirements would slash access. Hood has pledged to fight for the Medicaid expansion in Mississippi, where Republicans have resisted it, pointing to the damage the GOP’s rejection of federal money has done to rural hospitals.
In these two Trump strongholds, the question is whether the president can get Republicans to come home — and whether the impeachment drive in the House will make this easier. “They’re trying to Trump this election up,” said Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster working for Beshear. “Impeachment seemed to have a short-term impact of unifying Republicans.”
Trump will speak at a Bevin rally on the eve of the election to keep this effect going. While it would be rash to bet against Trump in a state he carried by 30 points in 2016, a Beshear victory would be a sign of the president’s weakness —- and of just how unpopular Bevin has become.
Today’s elections will also test which side of politics is more mobilized. In Virginia, all signs point to a high level of Democratic activism. Yang, who is also polling in state Senate races there, also pointed to extensive use of early voting in contested districts. In Kentucky, the race could be decided by whether voters in more moderate and progressive urban areas turn out in greater proportion relative to GOP-base rural counties.
Fear of such an imbalance is why Bevin is counting on Trump as a motivator. “Ironically, people are like, ‘Oh, you keep trying to nationalize the race,’” Bevin told The Washington Post’s James Hohmann, “but the people of Kentucky nationalize the race. They care about the impeachment issue.”
Perhaps this will be enough for him. But when the issues are running the Democrats’ way even in Trump states, Republicans have to consider whether the problems they face run even deeper than a profoundly flawed president.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @ EJDionne.