WASHINGTON – Today’s off-year elections are state and local affairs, but they will still tell us something about the national political scene one year before the 2020 election.
How much redder is rural America growing as the blueness of cities spreads to the suburbs?
Will the governors’ races in Kentucky, Mississippi and – later this month in Louisiana –be more evidence that voters are increasingly unwilling to vote one way for federal office and another for state leaders?
And then there’s what the elections could say about the popularity of President Donald Trump.
The president tried to push GOP gubernatorial candidates over the finish line while staying clear of Republicans’ efforts to hold onto their narrow majority in the Virginia state legislature – all while fighting a growing impeachment inquiry in Washington.
“There is no getting away from what is happening nationally, even in these off-year elections,” said Page Gardner, president of the Voter Participation Center, which tries to increase engagement among unmarried women, young people and people of color. “At the end of the day, whatever you say, you’re running in an operating environment that is being defined by his presidency.”
Here’s a look at what to watch for when the results come in.
Kentucky governor’s race
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin is the best example of a Trump proxy on the ballot today.
Besides sharing Trump’s pugilistic style, Bevin has also tied himself closely to Trump.
“Matt’s proudly pro-life, against sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants and against impeaching our president,” says one of Bevin’s ads that ends with him waving from Air Force One with Trump.
Bevin has traveled multiple times to the White House, taken a live call from Trump during a news conference in Kentucky, and leaned into the impeachment issue the most among the Republicans running for governor this year.
Trump spent election eve campaigning for Bevin in Kentucky, a state the president carried by nearly 30 points.
Democrats say Bevin had no choice but to run on Trump’s coattails after his criticism of teachers and the actions he’s taking on health care and public employee pensions have made him one of the nation’s most unpopular governors.
“I’m still a Donald Trump guy, but I’m done with Bevin,” Kentuckian Dennis Boehm says in an ad for the Democrat, Lt. Gov. Andy Beshear.
The race could show whether there’s a limit to Trump’s popularity or to his ability to transfer that popularity, said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Inside Elections, which analyzes races.
“I think Kentucky is a test of whether a connection to the president is enough to smooth over other faults,” he said.
Mississippi and Louisiana governor races
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, won’t find out his fate this week. After he failed to win a majority of the votes in the October “jungle primary,” Edwards faces Republican businessman Eddie Rispone in a Nov. 16 runoff.
In the primary, Edwards performed better than he had four years ago in the areas that included the state’s two largest cities as well as the suburbs of New Orleans. But he did worse in many rural areas.
That trend of rural America and small cities getting more Republican while bigger cities and suburbs become more Democratic was also apparent in a North Carolina special election for a congressional seat in September.
And as voting patterns become more intensely partisan, Democrats could find it harder to win votes in states like Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana where Trump is popular.
A candidate with Edwards’ approval rating and track record would have been easily re-elected 20 years ago, said Kyle Kondik, who analyzes elections at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“But in this era, where party label is so much more meaningful and politics are so nationalized, even at the state level, it gets harder,” he said.
That’s the same situation facing Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, the only Democrat there holding a statewide office, who is running to become governor. Hood faces Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in the race to succeed the GOP governor, who is term limited.
“I bait my own hook, carry my own gun and drive my own truck,” Hood boasts in an ad highlighting the culturally conservative persona that used to allow some Democrats to win Republican states.
Democrats say that the fact that all three governors races are close shows that they can compete anywhere with the right candidates focused on local issues.
Republicans say those states’ histories of electing Democrats at the state level is still fairly recent and a clean sweep by the GOP of all three would be unprecedented.
Battle over state legislatures
The battle is just starting for the brawl that will explode next year in state legislative races as the parties try to put themselves in the best position for redrawing state and federal legislative maps after the 2020 Census.
“We got caught off-guard in 2010. The Republicans routed us,” said Matt Harringer, spokesman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “Democrats have learned their lesson.”
The party and their allies are outspending Republicans in today’s showdown for control of the Virginia legislature, the only state with legislative races on the ballot where party control could flip. (Republicans are hoping to maintain their supermajority in Mississippi and gain a supermajority in Louisiana. Democrats should hold their supermajority in New Jersey’s lower house.)
In Virginia, Democrats are trying to build on their huge gains in 2017 when they came tantalizingly close to winning the legislature in a state that has become increasingly blue.
“Does that trend in Virginia continue, or do Democrats stall out a little bit in what’s going to be a lower turnout election?” asked Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Most of the major Democratic presidential candidates have traveled to Virginia to keep the momentum going. Republicans, however, sent Vice President Mike Pence – and not Trump – across the river for a pre-election push.
“Virginia Republicans have built a wall at the Potomac to keep Donald Trump out,” Harringer said.
Trump lost Virginia by 5 percentage points in 2019 and his approval rating is under water there.
In the mirror opposite of the situation in the Kentucky governor’s race, Republicans complain that Virginia Democrats only want to talk about Trump and impeachment while their candidates are focusing on local issues.
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, compares Trump’s role in the election to an omnipresent force below the surface of the debate.
“When there’s sort of a strong, steady wind, people don’t talk about the wind, but everything they do when they’re outside is affected by the wind,” he said. “The undertone of all of (Democrats’) campaigns in competitive races has been about sending this message of disapproval. Republicans have wanted to localize elections as much as possible.”
Gun violence has played an outsized role in the legislative elections in Virginia, a state that suffered the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech and the May shooting that left a dozen dead in Virginia Beach.
The Republican speaker of the House, Kirk Cox, is being challenged by a woman whose daughter survived a 2016 shooting. The Democrat challenging the Republican state senator who represents Virginia Beach ran an ad featuring a woman who was in the city building there when the shooter attacked.
“I was lucky, but not everyone was,” Karen Havekost says in the ad, before criticizing state Sen. Bill DeSteph for not doing enough to address gun violence.
The ad was partially paid for by Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, which has outspent the Virginia-based National Rifle Association in the elections.
Austin Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, said Democrats are taking advantage of the tragedy by politicizing it to fire up their base in a low-turnout election.
“I think, for the most part, Democrats have overplayed their hands,” he said. “They’ve tried to make this entire election about gun control.”
Kidd, the professor at Christopher Newport University, said if DeSteph is defeated in Virginia Beach, that could have national implications.
“Virginia Beach is a big suburban city that looks a lot like western Philly suburbs, the eastern Denver suburbs, the eastern Kansas City suburbs,” Kidd said. “If gun control, gun safety is going to play in 2020, we’ll see how well (it will) in this particular Senate race.”
Health Care still a top issue
Health care, the issue that provided much of the wind in the sails of Democrats in the 2018 election, was also a top topic in gubernatorial and legislative races.
Edwards’ expansion of Medicaid in Louisiana was the signature accomplishment of his first term and he’s hammering his GOP challenger for calling for a “freeze” to check whether those enrolled actually qualify.
In Mississippi, Hood – the Democratic candidate – has promised to expand Medicaid while the Republican would not.
In Kentucky, Beshear wants to undo changes Bevin made to Medicaid, which was expanded under Beshear’s father when he was governor. Bevin has required that some adults prove they are working to get benefits and has threatened to end the expansion if a court challenge to those requirements is successful.
In the Virginia legislative races, the state’s recent Medicaid expansion is so popular that even some Republicans who had opposed it are running on their support for expansion.
“It’s a phenomenal change,” Kidd said.
But Republicans are also playing offense on health care. An ad in the Kentucky governor’s race shows Democratic presidential candidates raising their hands during one of the presidential debates when asked whether they would provide insurance to immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Another ad by the Republican Governors Association, this one in Louisiana, also shows the Democratic debate stage while referencing some of the presidential candidates’ support for Medicare for All.
“Washington Democrats want a full government takeover of health care,” the ad says. “But John Bel Edwards has already started.”
Rehearsal for 2020
Both sides are using this year’s elections to get ready for 2020. They’re testing messaging, voter registration encouragement and techniques to get voters to the polls.
One big focus of the Republican National Committee is expanding its grassroots organization. They’ve trained 22,000 people this year, moving toward their goal of having 60,000 ready to mobilize for next year’s elections. They’d only trained 5,000 during the 2016 cycle.
And a “national week of action” held in the runup to today’s election includes a dry run of their get-out-the-vote effort.
One of the most active groups on the Democratic side is the political action committee Priorities USA. They launched in September a $4 million campaign targeting voters in the 2020 presidential battleground states of Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania. The activities help the group figure out which techniques are most effective while also getting voters in the habit of going to the polls so they’re more likely to show up in 2020.
Don’t forget about mayors
Many mayoral races in the bigger cities have already taken place, with Democrats increasing their dominance by picking up seats in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Montgomery, Alabama.
Steven Reed will be the first African American to represent Alabama’s majority-black capital, a city known as the birthplace of the civil rights movement. Montgomery was one of only three Deep South cities with a population of 100,000 or more that had never elected an African American as mayor.
African Americans are also succeeding white mayors in Chicago and Dallas.
An African American woman lost to a younger, white male challenger in New Haven, Connecticut, an example of a growing number of Democratic primary challenges to mayors.
The number of openly gay women running cities of 100,000 or more increased from two to five with the elections of LGBTQ candidates in Chicago, Madison and Tampa.
Republicans say their best chance for pickups today are in Aurora, Colorado, and Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Despite Democrats’ control of the majority of the nation’s largest cities, the spokesman for the Republicans’ group for mayors and city council members said the party’s not deterred because politics is cyclical.
“That’s the kind of the season that we’re in right now,” said Ben Cannatti, political and communications director for Community Leaders of America. “Eventually the Democrat leadership falls by the wayside and voters look for an alternative.”