Democrats lead Kentucky governor race, seize Virginia legislature in major upsets for Trump

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Published 06.11.2019 14:31
Democrats lead Kentucky governor race, seize Virginia legislature in major upsets for Trump

U.S. Democrats took full control of the Virginia legislature for the first time in more than two decades on Tuesday while the race for governor in deeply Republican Kentucky was too close to call despite a last-minute boost from President Donald Trump.

In Kentucky, Democratic challenger Andy Beshear held a narrow lead and declared victory in the governor's race over Republican incumbent Matt Bevin, though Bevin had not yet conceded. And in Virginia, Democrats flipped control of the state Senate and House, gaining outright control of the state government in a state that is often a battleground for the White House.

"I'm here to officially declare today, Nov. 5, 2019, that Virginia is officially blue," Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam told a crowd of supporters in Richmond.

Democrats wrested both chambers of Virginia's legislature from narrow Republican majorities, which would give the party complete control of the state government for the first time in a quarter-century. Trump has avoided Virginia, where Democrats found success in suburban swing districts in last year's congressional elections, as they did in states across the country. Tuesday's election, which saw Democrats prevail in several northern Virginia suburbs, suggested the trend was continuing.


Democratic supporters cheer their candidates at a Democratic Party victory celebration in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP Photo)

A year before the presidential election, the results offered warning signs for both parties. Voters in suburban swaths of Kentucky and Virginia sided with Democrats, a trend that would complicate Trump's path to reelection if it holds. And the Democrats who made gains on Tuesday did so by largely avoiding positions such as "Medicare for All" that have animated the party's left flank in the Democratic presidential primary.

Democratic pickups in Virginia occurred in Washington, D.C., and Richmond suburbs that already had trended in the party's direction in recent years. In Kentucky, Beshear gained considerable ground on Bevin in Kentucky's suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, counties that had helped propel the Republican to office four years ago. Other statewide GOP candidates in Kentucky won by comfortable margins. But the dip at the top of the ticket still offered another example in the Trump era of suburban voters' willingness to abandon established Republican loyalties – even with the president making a personal appeal on behalf of a GOP standard-bearer.

In a speech in Lexington, Kentucky, on Monday night, Trump – who won Kentucky by 30 percentage points in 2016 – told voters that they needed to re-elect Bevin, or else pundits would say the president "suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world."

The remarks reflected the extent to which Bevin, 52, sought to nationalize the campaign, emphasizing his support for Trump amid a Democratic-led impeachment inquiry of the Republican president in Congress.

While the result was a significant setback for Trump, who remains relatively popular in Kentucky, it may have had more to do with Bevin's diminished standing in the state. Opinion polls showed Bevin may be the least popular governor in the country, after he waged high-profile fights with labor unions and teachers.

At a rally on Tuesday night, Bevin refused to concede, citing unspecified "irregularities," even as Beshear called on the governor to honor the results.

Trump asserted on Twitter that his rally had helped Bevin avoid a bigger loss and boasted that Republicans had won several other statewide races.

"@MattBevin picked up at least 15 points in last days, but perhaps not enough (Fake News will blame Trump!)," the president wrote.

Trump's 2020 campaign manager tried to find a positive frame for the results in a state where Trump dominated in 2016. "The president just about dragged Gov. Matt Bevin across the finish line, helping him run stronger than expected in what turned into a very close race at the end," Brad Parscale said.

Beshear's upset win could also bolster Democrats' slim hopes of ousting Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is on the ballot himself in the state next year.

Trump may depend on Mississippi, where he also campaigned in the final stretch before Election Day, for something to crow about. With Republican Gov. Phil Bryant term-limited, GOP nominee Tate Reeves defeated Democrat Jim Hood to extend the GOP's 20-year hold on the state's top office. But even that contest could finish with a single-digit margin in a state Trump won by 28 points three years ago.

The tighter result for Reeves reflected the same suburban trends seen in other states. Heavily Republican counties outside Jackson, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, still tilted to the GOP nominee, but by noticeably narrower margins than what Bryant had four years ago to win a second term.

Legislative seats also were on the ballot in New Jersey, with Democrats positioned to maintain their overwhelming majorities and quell any opportunity for Trump to suggest that the Republicans were encroaching on Democratic territory ahead of 2020.

While Tuesday's results aren't necessarily predictive of what will happen next November, voters in multiple states 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, Simmons said, "means everything to me, especially now."

A staunch Trump support, Simmons called the impeachment investigation 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."

To explain Kentucky, Republicans undoubtedly will echo the Trump campaign and focus on Bevin's weaknesses. He spent his term battling with 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. Still, a Bevin upset would leave Trump explaining why his signature tactic of late campaign rallies wasn't enough in a state he won easily in 2016.

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. The powerful senator likely will see a fundraising bonanza for a potential challenger if Beshear prevails.

In Mississippi, Republicans have dominated state politics for two decades. Reeves, the current lieutenant governor, sought to capitalize on those GOP leanings after Hood, the attorney general, acknowledged that he voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016. Hood needed 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.

Elsewhere, voters in the West were deciding several ballot measures, with residents of Tucson, Arizona, appearing to overwhelmingly reject a proposal to designate it as Arizona's only sanctuary city.

The proposal called for new restrictions on when and where people could be asked about their immigration status and required officers to first tell people that they have a right not to answer questions about whether they're in the country legally. Tucson's all-Democratic City Council opposed the measure, citing concerns about the potential for losing millions of dollars in state and federal funding.

The Virginia contest drew heavy attention and money from both parties. Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential front-runner, visited Virginia over the weekend to campaign with several statehouse candidates, and Republican Vice President Mike Pence held a rally on Saturday.

Other Democratic presidential contenders, including U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, have also campaigned with local candidates.

In one notable race, Democrat Shelly Simonds, who lost a state House of Delegates race in 2017 via random draw after the election ended in a tie, won a rematch against Republican David Yancey.

Virginia's Democratic gains came despite a year of scandal for the party's top officials in the state. Governor Ralph Northam barely endured a political firestorm after his yearbook page was shown to have photos of someone in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan costume, while Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface himself in college. Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, meanwhile, has denied two accusations of sexual assault.

The legislative wins likely mean that Democrats can pass a raft of bills that Republicans had resisted, including new gun limits. Democrats will also control the redistricting process in 2021, when lawmakers draw new voting lines for state and congressional elections after next year's U.S. Census.

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