Will to­day’s state elec­tions be ‘Trumped up?’

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - EJ Dionne

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.

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