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 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 state government in a state that is often a battleground for the White House.
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 issues such as “Medicare for All” that have dominated the debate among the party’s presidential candidates.
Democratic gains in Virginia occurred in suburbs that already had trended in the party’s direction in recent years. In Kentucky, Beshear gained considerable ground on Bevin in suburban Kentucky 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 nonetheless 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.
Besides Kentucky, Trump also traveled to Mississippi as he tried to prove his sway among Republicans. But even in Mississippi, GOP nominee Tate Reeves and Democrat Jim Hood have had a hotly contested campaign, but early returns showed Reeves, the lieutenant governor, with a comfortable lead over Hood, the attorney general.
Legislative seats also are on the ballot in New Jersey, a Democratic stronghold, but it’s Virginia that offers 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. Now, they have achieved a trifecta: control of the governor’s office and both legislative chambers.
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 undoubtedly would claim a big victory if the governor pulls out a narrow win. But a Beshear upset would leave 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. The powerful senator would quell some of those hopes with a Bevin victory, while he’d likely watch a fundraising bonanza for a potential challenger if Beshear prevails.
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.
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.
Follow Bill Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP