In the gubernatorial election in the Republican stronghold Kentucky, Trump’s candidate Governor Matt Bevin (48.83 per cent) was narrowly beaten by his Democratic challenger Andy Beshear (49.19 per cent). Three years ago, Trump had won Kentucky in a landslide during the presidential election, with a 30-percentage-point lead over Hillary Clinton.
Being cognizant of how vital Kentucky will be for his reelection bid, Trump had visited Kentucky the day before the election to back Bevin. Just as so many other Republicans in these last three years, Bevin had fully committed to Trump in the hope the president’s base would generate sufficient support. Adhering to the Trump playbook, he chastised “radical liberals in Washington” who “only sought one thing: to kick President Trump out of office, and on 5 November, vote for Matt Bevin to send them a message,” Bevin’s ads read. The support was urgently needed, as Bevin’s approval rating in the state had been abysmal, particularly since he had publicly feuded with unions and teachers’ associations.
Kentucky is considered to be a republican heartland. The GOP has a vast majority in the regional parliament in the birthplace of Lincoln, and Kentucky’s two US senators are also Republicans. Trump had succeeded in the 2016 presidential election to expand the already strong conservative electoral base in Kentucky to workers and miners affected by structural change. With 62.5 per cent of the vote, he scored his nationwide fifth-best result in Kentucky.
Three years later Trump has failed to repurpose the gubernatorial election in his favour. Most importantly, with impeachment looming and Bevin himself making the election a specific test of sentiment for Trump, it could have been the first indication of some Trump-fatigue, particularly given the region and his 2016 track record here.
Bevin’s low approval ratings may have played a role, but Trump managed to orchestrate reelections for other, equally less popular characters – and that was before facing impeachment, a scenario that should have mobilised many more Republican voters. Republicans in Congress were quick to downplay the Kentucky loss and the narrative that this election was a statement against the president.
It is noteworthy, however, that the Democratic winner Beshear is not to be confused with the left-leaning Washington Democrats. Unlike them, Beshear did not make his campaign about Trump. In fact, he barely criticised him while not even commenting on a potential impeachment against Trump. Kentucky has not suddenly become a blue state, where any kind of Democrats could have walked in and snatch away the governorship. It took a Democrat with a compelling blueprint: more program (i.e. better accessibility to Medicaid, overhaul the state’s education system, restore voting rights of former felons), fewer attacks on the president. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Beshear’s federal colleagues will oblige.
Elections were also held in Mississippi and Virginia. In Mississippi, where Trump won the presidential election with just under 58 per cent, the Republican Deputy Governor Tate Reeves prevailed with 54.4 to 44.3 per cent against Democrat Jim Hood. In Virginia, the Democrats succeeded in conquering both houses of the regional parliament.
While the loss in Kentucky was undoubtedly disappointing for Trump and his hope to win the state again in 2020, the idea that his voters had already turned on him seems unjustified at this stage, and as Republicans rightfully eluded to, other GOP candidates succeeded.
Trump’s approval rating in Kentucky is at 45, which is five above the national average. The combination of the candidates with Bevin being unpopular and a Democrat in Beshear that was votable for moderates on both sides seem, therefore, to be a more coherent answer for the loss.