Kentucky’s Republican governor was fighting for his political life Tuesday night as elections in four states test voter enthusiasm and party organization amid impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump and a fevered Democratic presidential primary scramble.
Trump campaigned for Republican Gov. Matt Bevin on Monday night, hours before Kentucky polls opened, but returns on Tuesday suggested Democratic challenger Andy Beshear gained considerable ground on Bevin in key suburban counties that helped propel him to office four years ago.
In Virginia, meanwhile, several key suburban legislative districts remained close as Republicans try to defend their narrow majorities in the state House and Senate.
Results in Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia won’t necessarily predict whether Trump will be re-elected or which party will control Congress after the general election next fall. But partisans will scrutinize the outcomes for clues about how voters are reacting to the impeachment saga and whether Republicans are losing even more ground among suburban voters who rewarded Democrats in the 2018 midterms and will prove critical again next November.
Trump has been eager to nationalize the contests, taking last-minute campaign trips to Kentucky and Mississippi, where Republican Tate Reeves and Democrat Jim Hood are in a competitive race for the state’s top office. Reeves is the lieutenant governor; Hood is the attorney general.
Legislative seats are also on the ballot in New Jersey, a Democratic stronghold, but it’s Virginia, a presidential battleground state, offering perhaps the best 2020 bellwether. Democrats had a big 2017 in the state, sweeping statewide offices by wide margins and gaining seats in the legislature largely on the strength of a strong suburban vote that previewed how Democrats would go on to flip the U.S. House a year later. Democrats need to flip just a handful of additional Virginia seats to gain control of the state House and Senate.
Some voters tied their decisions to the national atmosphere, particularly the president.
In Kentucky, 73-year-old Michael Jennings voted straight Democratic. A Vietnam veteran, retired state worker and former journalist, Jennings described the president as unfit for office and a threat to American democracy. “If Kentucky can send a small flare up that we’re making the necessary turn, that’s a hopeful sign that would have reverberations far beyond our state,” he said.
Yet Richard Simmons, 63, a butcher from Glen Allen, Virginia, was just as staunchly in the GOP camp, saying he voted for GayDonna Vandergriff in a state House race. Her Republican affiliation, he said, “means everything to me, especially now.”
Simmons said he’s a staunch Trump supporter and thinks the impeachment investigation is unfounded. “It’s one diversion after another to keep Trump from doing anything,” he said. “He’s helped the economy, like, big-time. And I trust the guy.”
The elections represent a considerable risk-and-reward scenario for the president.
Bevin’s first term as Kentucky governor has been marked by pitched battles against state lawmakers — including Republicans — and teachers. Beshear, meanwhile, is well known as state attorney general and the son of Steve Beshear, who won two terms as governor from 2007 to 2016 even as the state trended more solidly Republican in federal elections.
Given Bevin’s weakness, Trump would claim a big victory if the governor pulls out even a narrow win. But a Beshear upset leaves Trump explaining why his signature tactic of late campaign rallies wasn’t enough in a state he won easily in 2016.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who easily defeated Bevin in a 2014 Senate primary, also has a vested interest in the outcome. McConnell is favored to win reelection next year in Kentucky, even as national Democrats harbor hopes of defeating him. And the powerful senator would quell some of those hopes with a Bevin victory.
In Mississippi, Republicans have controlled the governor’s office for two decades. But Phil Bryant is term-limited, leaving two other statewide officials to battle for a promotion. Reeves and Republicans have sought to capitalize on the state’s GOP leanings with the Democrat Hood acknowledging that he voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016. Hood would need a high turnout of the state’s African American voters and a better-than-usual share of the white vote to pull off the upset.
Virginia is where national Democrats are putting much of their attention.
For this cycle, the DNC has steered $200,000 to the state party for its statewide coordinated campaign effort that now has 108 field organizers and 16 other field staffers in what the party describes as its largest-ever legislative campaign effort. At the DNC, Perez and his aides bill it as a preview of what they’re trying to build to combat the fundraising and organizing juggernaut that the Republican National Committee and Trump’s reelection campaign are building in battleground states.
Elsewhere, voters in the West were deciding several ballot measures Tuesday, including one that would make Tucson, Arizona, a sanctuary city.
It would put new restrictions on when and where a person can be asked about their immigration status and require officers to first tell people that they have a right not to answer questions about whether they’re in the country legally. Tucson’s entire City Council, all Democrats, is opposed, citing concerns about the potential for losing millions of dollars in state and federal funding.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples contributed to this report.