A bad night for Trump? Yeah, mostly. But plenty of turmoil under the surface

Trump couldn't save Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and Democrats swept Virginia. Elsewhere, honestly, a mixed bag

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published November 6, 2019 12:30PM (EST)

 (Getty/Ethan Miller/Olivier Douliery/Salon)
(Getty/Ethan Miller/Olivier Douliery/Salon)

On the night before Tuesday’s off-year elections, President Trump traveled to Kentucky — a state he won by 30 points in 2016 — to campaign on behalf of incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, and pronounced that the race should serve as a referendum on his presidency. 

Should Bevin lose, Trump told fans at a Lexington rally, that “sends a really bad message” to the rest of the country. “You can’t let that happen to me!”

The race in Kentucky has yet to be officially called by mainstream news outlets, but Bevin has almost certainly been defeated. He may have had the worst electoral performance in recent American history, considering the circumstances. He lost counties that Trump won by 60 points in 2016. Democratic state Attorney General Andy Beshear holds a lead of 5,150 votes over Bevin (49.2% to 48.8%), with 100% of the precincts reporting.

Bevin, one of the most unpopular governors in the country, has refused to concede and has made unsubstantiated claims about voting "irregularities" to explain away his apparent loss. (Although Beshear's margin is slim, it's wildly unlikely that any possible recount would undo it.) It should be noted, however, that Bevin barely won his GOP primary in May with 52% of the vote, a dangerously slim margin for an incumbent. On Tuesday, he lost Jefferson County, the state's most populous county (it includes Louisville) by almost 100,000 votes. By comparison, Sen. Mitch McConnell’s worst performance in 2008 resulted in only a 40,000-vote loss. Beshear flipped the Cincinnati suburbs in northern Kentucky by five to six percentage points from Bevin’s 2015 victory. 

"This has nothing to do with Trump,” Donald Trump Jr. said in reaction to Bevin’s loss in a Fox News appearance Tuesday night. His father, however, insisted on taking credit for Bevin’s loss.

Fox News’ Laura Ingraham and RNC chair Ronna McDaniel were all too happy to play along.

Trump still has high approval ratings in Kentucky, and it's extremely unlikely he would lose the state to any potential Democratic nominee. But Tuesday’s results might be cause for concern to McConnell, who is up for re-election next year and has an 18 percent job approval rating in Kentucky. Only 37 percent of Kentuckians in a Public Policy poll said they would vote for McConnell again next year. Viewed through a longer lens, however, no senatorial candidates won in 2016 in a state carried by the opposing party's presidential candidate. So despite Democratic exultation on Wednesday, "Moscow Mitch" probably has little to worry about.

Bevin, to be sure, was uniquely unpopular for a bevy of reasons, including attempts to gut the popular Medicaid expansion in the Bluegrass State and his 2018 "guarantee" that a teachers' strike would lead to children being sexually assaulted. More than 28,000 people voted for the Libertarian candidate — more than five times the margin between Beshear and Bevin. 

Republicans won the other five statewide offices in Kentucky, flipping the attorney general and secretary of state positions. They will also now hold a veto-proof majority in the Kentucky legislature, which may render apparent Gov.-elect Beshear all but powerless to implement his more ambitious campaign promises, such as restoring voting rights to over 140,000 residents disenfranchised by Bevin. 

But there is no such silver lining for the GOP in Virginia, where Democrats won control of the Virginia State Senate and the Virginia State House. With Democrat Ralph Northam as Governor, Democrats now control all three branches of government for the first time in 25 years. They could pass automatic voter registration, decriminalize marijuana, restrict disenfranchisement and allow localities to take down Confederate monuments. 

Trump looks to have played a big factor in Republicans’ collapse in the Virginia suburbs. One interesting anecdote: The cyclist who famously flipped off Trump’s motorcade in a viral 2017 photo, and subsequently lost her job, won her race for a seat on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors and will soon represent a district that includes one of Trump’s golf clubs. 

GOP’s trouble with suburban voters extended beyond a now-blue Virginia on Tuesday. In the all-important Philadelphia suburbs, Democrats now hold all five seats on the Delaware County Council for the first time since the Civil War. In Indiana, three Democrats won seats on the reliably red Hamilton County council. Republicans had previously controlled every council seat for decades. Democrats also flipped control of Columbus, Indiana, the hometown of Vice President Mike Pence, for the first time in 40 years. 

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves won the Mississippi gubernatorial race over Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, 52.3% to 46.5%, which is an improvement on Democrats’ last performance four years ago. But with Hood not running for re-election, Democrats lost the attorney general’s office in the state for the first time since 1873. And Republicans made modest gains in New Jersey, flipping legislative seats in the red-trending southern third of the state and undoing Democrats' supermajority in the lower chamber of the state legislature. 

Progressive causes in progressive cities didn’t fare too well either. Amazon, poured $1.5 million into a Seattle City Council race, the most any group has ever spent on a city election, and may have succeeded in beating back a progressive candidate. (Mail-in ballots have yet to be counted.) Voters in Tucson, Arizona, elected a Latina woman as mayor, but roundly rejected an effort to dub the city a so-called sanctuary city to protect undocumented residents. 

But Trump’s impact on down-ballot races may be the biggest takeaway from Tuesday’s mixed bag. Republicans have lost more than 450 local and state elections since the president's inauguration.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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