Elections In The Meantime
An unpopular sitting incumbent Republican executive that confounded pollsters to get into office and might have to pull off a similar upset to get re-elected. A moderate Democrat that is taking heat from the left and hopes to win with the middle. A heated debate on whether a state has become too partisan for one party to ever win even locally there again. Legislative races fought under the shadows of sexual assault allegations in the news and a conversation on race after a series of scandals shakes the entire executive cabinet. If you think I’m talking about the environment so far for the 2020 presidential election cycle, you’d be wrong. I’m talking about the various storylines happening in the biggest of the 2019 off-year elections.
It’s understandable that the media is focusing all of its electoral coverage resources on the first phase in the battle to decide who’ll be in the White House as we enter a new decade; but there are smaller races in 2019 that deserve a look as well. Yes, a sitting incumbent president may actually lose for the first time since I was three years old and yes, there’s an interesting debate fallout occurring as I write this piece regarding “Big Dog” Joe Biden potentially showing signs of that historic meltdown everyone seems to have been anticipating from him. However, I’d argue there’s just as much drama and tantalizing possibilities in the off-year races as well. So while there’s certainly plenty for me to write about in regards to 2020 we still have plenty of months, news cycles, and poll fluctuations before Iowa, so you’ll have to humor me this one time so I can go over elections that are going to be decided THIS year instead of next. In fact, these races will culminate in just around four to five months from now.
Before I begin let me just get some things out of the way. There are thousands of races happening this year that we never hear about. From local city council and mayoral races to interesting statewide initiatives to local cabinet positions to other ballot questions that will be decided. You should always keep track of your own local races and turn out to vote even in a year before the presidential race as these races tend to elect people into positions that effect you more personally than a federal race likely will; and sadly they nonetheless see very little turnout. But the only races I’ll be focusing on in this particular piece are what I believe to be the biggest races of the year, and it just so happens to be pretty much an all southern affair.
– Kentucky: A Potential Preview Of The 2020 Presidential Election?
For what is extremely likely to be just circumstantial reasons, Kentucky’s gubernatorial elections of late have ended up sort of previews of what happens the following year when the country goes to the polls to elect a president. In 2003 a Republican victory preceded George W Bush’s close fought re-election, in 2007 a Democratic victory precede Barrack Obama’s sweeping victory, in 2011 another Democratic victory precede Obama’s hard-fought re-election, and in 2015 the race was eerily just like the presidential race that would follow.
That year an unpopular among the “establishment” Republican politician in Matt Bevin, a private businessman who had failed to defeat then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a primary the year before, had overcome suspicions and an outsider image to win the nomination of his party for governor. Democrats in turn had played it safe and nominated Jack Conway, the state’s then-sitting attorney general who had come up short in an open seat senate race in 2010. Conway, like Hillary Clinton, seemed to have been the “their turn” candidate and lead in the average polling from the start of the race up until election day. Bevin however, like Donald Trump, pulled off an upset going from being down by as much as five points in some final polls to winning statewide by nearly nine.
Bevin’s win, like the 2016 presidential race, was a shock to the conventional wisdom of a Conway victory. However, just like in 2016, polling data suggested a last second tightening towards the red team with some final polls actually showing momentum towards Bevin. And like in 2016, the down ballot races saw Republicans enjoy a mini wave of sorts in the state that year via the Bevin upset’s coattails. And now Bevin faces the very same tests that Trump will face come next year.
Like the president, Bevin has ended up an unpopular sitting incumbent. Polling suggests that as he seeks re-election he is arguably the most unpopular governor in the country today – with the latest Morning Consult poll showing him at just 33% approval to 52% disapproval in the same state the president is wildly popular in and in which he is extremely likely to win again in a landslide next year. Bevin even underperformed in his primary; favored to win by huge margins according to polls a month before, he ended up with a mediocre for an incumbent 52% vote share among his fellow Republicans. On paper he should be beatable.
But just like in the ongoing 2020 presidential race, Democrats have no room to get cocky. Besides the obvious fact the state’s partisanship is a problem for them, they did have Bevin on the ropes four years earlier and he still overcame the odds to beat them. So, they seem to have played it safe once again by nominating previously-popular Democratic governor Steve Beshear’s son, Andy Beshear, the sitting attorney general of the state (Just like Conway was) who barely won his post while Bevin was surprising the pundits. Beshear survived what turned from a rout to an extra close primary battle and according to polling he has a serious shot to dethrone the unpopular governor, but between the polls available as I write this, he only leads by one and the most recent polling had him down by six.
Will state partisanship reign supreme or will fundamentals in the background of the race matter more? Whatever happens, Trump finds himself in a sort of similar situation today and he might want to take some notes on how this one plays out.
– Louisiana: A Moderate Democrat Tries To Build A Legacy
In 2015, the blue team did have one major highlight happen for them in Louisiana. Weeks after Matt Bevin stole victory from the jaws of defeat, they won the gubernatorial runoff election by double digits. How did they win in a red state that would go on to back Trump by a landslide the following year? A perfect storm and a perfect candidate.
Democrats ended up getting behind John Bel Edwards, the then Minority Leader of the state house. Edwards is a moderate with a background that includes military service and is one of the few remaining pro-life Democrats. With the then-sitting GOP governor Bobby Jindal leaving office very unpopular and Republicans getting behind the controversial scandal-plagued Senator David Vitter, Edwards came from behind to easily win the open seat.
In office Edwards has lived up to his moderate image. He signed conservative pro-life bills limiting abortion while also signing executive orders to protect the LBGT community in the state. He’s been openly pro-gun rights while also expanding Medicaid and pushing for a reduction in the prison population. He’s been active in trying to work with the Trump administration as best he can for his state, while giving teachers raises and working to lower the uninsured numbers in the state. This type of governing in a red state has led to Democrat Edwards being a net popular governor, posting as of this writing a 47% approval rating to 32% disapproval rating in Morning Consult’s polling. Polls as of today show him favored to easily win first place in the first round and have a lead in the runoff. On paper he should be favored for re-election.
But just as Bevin’s unpopularity in Kentucky may be trumped (no pun intended) by state partisanship, Edward’s popularity in the same state that refused to back moderate Senator Mary Landrieu’s re-election five years ago may not be enough. Republicans will likely attempt to nationalize the race and Edwards’ popularity is a plurality, not a majority – meaning plenty of unsure voters could be persuaded to think it is time for a change in the governor’s mansion. Also, Edwards will probably end up being forced into a runoff where the race will likely tighten as the red team will likely nominate someone without the baggage David Vitter had four years prior.
Like with some federal figures in the blue team, Edward’s moderate stances, especially on issues like abortion, have gotten him some flack from his own side. But for Democrats to win in a state as red as Louisiana is these days, a popular moderate Democrat that governs is their only real chance at any power here. And even then, we may learn this fall that’s not enough anymore.
– Mississippi: Open Seat Test For Blue Dogs
But if Louisiana’s sitting blue dog governor is trying to prove he can keep office, his neighbors in Mississippi are going to decide if they’ll give the same opportunity to a blue dog of their own in a potentially competitive open seat race for governor there. Mississippi isn’t as red as, say, a Kentucky or a Louisiana, but it remains aligned with the red team, even backing a gaffe-prone GOP Senator in her re-election bid last year. One of the few prominent Democrats left in the state is the sitting attorney general who knows how to win in the state as a blue dog, Jim Hood.
For years Democrats have fantasized about Hood running for the seat as he arguably is their best chance to get the governor’s mansion. He’s been attorney general in the state as it has transformed into becoming much more partisan towards the right. In 2003 he was elected to the position in a landslide and in 2007, 2011, and 2015 won re-election by double digits each time. Now with an open seat battle planned for the fall for the gubernatorial seat, Hood has finally decided to go for it.
Unlike Edwards who was able to win thanks to a perfect storm of things in 2015, Hood won’t have anywhere near such help. The Mississippi sitting GOP governor, Phil Bryant, is leaving office a clearly popular governor as he posts a 52% approval to 25% disapproval in the latest Morning Consult findings. Hood’s likely opponent won’t be a controversial federal official but the state’s lieutenant governor, Tate Reeves, who won statewide office by landslide margins in the same election years Hood was easily winning his own statewide races. Polling as of today between this hypothetical but likely matchup shows a very tight race with a very slight edge to Reeves, but some higher quality polling being more bullish on Hood.
A Democratic victory here is arguably the longest reach out of the three gubernatorial races happening this year, but it isn’t anywhere near impossible either. This alongside Kentucky and Louisiana could lead to three gubernatorial races all within the same year that are hard fought competitive affairs with sweeps or heartbreak for either party completely plausible.
– Virginia: A Cabinet In Scandal, But Are Voters Feeling Blue?
There are non-gubernatorial elections happening this year that I consider to be just as interesting and arguably important. In Virginia, a state that has transformed from red to purple and may be turning blue of late, the state’s Democratic party seems to be poised for a great off-year election. They still might be, but unexpected events have given Republicans a path.
In 2017, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam overperformed polls that on average suggested a close victory for him by winning by nine points. Down the ballot his victory had coattails that saw a mini wave in the state that gave the blue team the cabinet and moved them from out of reach of flipping the state house and senate to being within striking distance. With the trends of the state and the governor and cabinet proving to be popular, Democrats were favored to flip the legislature this time around.
Then came one of the worst couple days in Virginia Democrats’ history. Governor Northam and the attorney general were discovered to have dressed up in black face in their youth. The governor even had a bizarre press conference featuring his wife having to stop him from moonwalking. To make things go to a whole other level, the lieutenant governor was accused of sexual assault and is still as of this writing dealing with those allegations. It was an absolute perfect storm of scandals that on paper you’d think would damage the blue team’s hopes for this year’s state races.
But if partisanship and polarization favor the GOP in the southern states holding gubernatorial elections, Virginia’s transformation into a bluer leaning state may help Democrats weather this storm here. Northam initially saw a big hit in his approval polls but has bounced back to become a very slightly plurality popular governor, posting a 40% approval to 36% disapproval in the latest Morning Consult poll, and other recent state-based polling suggests he’s more popular than that. State observers continue to be bullish on the Democrats flipping one or both of the state legislatures this fall. If Democrats sweep, they’ll have full blown control of a state that even Bill Clinton at one point couldn’t flip.
These are but a few of the many races happening THIS year, but these are arguably the highest profile ones and could tell us something about the current political environment and coalitions we’re dealing with as we continue on to 2020. I get the high record-breaking early interest in the 2020 election; I share that interest myself. But just keep in mind that its not all about 2020 and that election night(s) 2019 has/have plenty intrigue in itself.