WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump and his supporters insisted on Wednesday that no course correction is needed despite stinging Republican defeats in battleground suburbs and a Democrat on the verge of victory in the governor’s race in deep-red Kentucky.
But the blue wave that swept through the suburbs in 2018 and gave Democrats control of the U.S. House barreled through communities outside Philadelphia, Washington and Cincinnati on Tuesday, sending a clear signal that Trump faces potential trouble in areas that have generally sided with Republicans for decades. Voters — many of them Democrats — participated at levels rarely seen in years when control of Congress or the White House isn’t at stake.
In Kentucky, turnout was up by nearly 50% from 2015, when the state last held a governor’s race. Turnout was higher for both parties, but the increases were much more dramatic for Democratic challenger Andy Beshear. Some of the biggest increases were in the counties where Beshear fared best, particularly in Jefferson County, home to Louisville, and Fayette County, which encompasses Lexington. Meanwhile, the counties where incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin did best underperformed compared with Democratic counties.
More than twice as many people in Virginia voted in state legislative races than in the last similar election four years ago.
With nearly a year until the presidential election, there is a risk of drawing firm conclusions about the meaning of Tuesday’s results. But coming amid an intensifying impeachment inquiry, they raise questions about Trump’s ability to help other Republicans across the finish line. At a minimum, some GOP strategists say the party needs to confront its eroding support in the suburbs.
“There are some troubling signs amongst some of the areas that are going to matter most in 2020: suburban areas in major metro areas in battleground states,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “For instance, in the Philadelphia suburbs, there were big GOP losses in a state where Trump won by a slim margin. The path to victory is in these suburbs, but there are a lot of warning signs that the environment is going to be tougher in 2020 than in 2016.”
Trump tried to avoid this dynamic, holding an election-eve rally with Bevin and acknowledging the governor’s fate would be intrinsically linked to his own.
“If you lose, they’re going to say, ‘Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. This was the greatest.’ You can’t let that happen to me!” Trump implored the crowd in Lexington on Monday night.
His staff late Tuesday began quickly trying to distance the president from Bevin, who was saddled with poor poll numbers. Trump’s reelection campaign manager, Brad Parscale, tweeted that Beshear “didn’t talk about impeachment or Trump, and (he) acts like a Republican.”
White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway claimed that Bevin would have lost in a rout had Trump not entered the fray.
“I think the president made this race competitive,” Conway told Fox News. “And the president got 62.5% of the vote in Kentucky three short years ago. He’ll dominate next year.”
Republicans claimed victory with the Mississippi governor’s race, but the Democrats otherwise dominated the day. Not only did Democrats excel around Philadelphia, they won majorities in both Virginia’s House and Senate, giving the party full control of the state’s government and solidifying what had once been a swing state as a stronghold for the party.
The headline race was in Kentucky, however, where Bevin asked for a recanvass of results that showed him more than 5,000 votes behind Beshear, who has declared victory. With 100% of precincts reporting, Beshear led by a little over 5,000 votes out of more than 1.4 million counted, or a margin of less than 0.4 percentage points. That’s inside the margin that would trigger a recount in most states, and it’s the policy of The Associated Press not to call races that could go to a recount. Although there is no mandatory recount law in Kentucky, the AP is applying that same standard here.
The results raised the question of why the president embraced an unpopular governor so late in the campaign. Ahead of the voting, some in Washington mused that a defeat in a ruby red state called into question the length of Trump’s coattails, potentially emboldening Senate Republicans to rebuke him during a possible impeachment trial. Most immediately, it underscored GOP worries about a shifting electoral playing field ahead of 2020.
“It means we’re bleeding in suburban areas, again,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, an organization of centrist GOP lawmakers. “We have to be aware that suburban women are no longer voting for the Republican Party.”
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who faces a tight reelection race next year in a swing state, said that he didn’t “see a wave there. I see those as really natural cycles that you see in certain state legislatures.” But asked about electoral lessons in the suburbs, he acknowledged: “If you take a look at North Carolina, where we’ve lost ground in the suburbs, we’ve got to be sure that we continue to maintain a good conservative posture.”
But the Trump campaign, which did not moderate despite the 2018 midterm defeats, signaled Wednesday that it would continue on the same track, believing that the president will come out from the impeachment inquiry unscathed, will wield a massive financial advantage over his eventual Democratic opponent and will firmly take control of the race once the field officially narrows to the two nominees next year.
Democrats pored through the results for lessons of their own. As the party’s presidential candidates debate ambitious, big-ticket items such as “Medicare for All,” moderates urged caution.
“To those who want to win nationally with a whole lotta votes, pay attention,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat who represents a swing district in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. “People want us to act, to focus on solving problems, not be the most ideologically pure.”
One Democrat running for president, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, seemed to echo that.
“I think that augers very well for us in 2020, if we nominate somebody who can win tough states, and Kentucky’s a really tough state,” he said. “I guarantee you that the gubernatorial candidate for the Democrats did not run on Medicare for All in Kentucky.”
But Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez dismissed the suggestion that Democrats may seal their defeat next year by nominating a candidate who is too left wing for voters, instead predicting that Trump’s divisive approach to the presidency would ultimately prove to be “terrible politics.”
“The extreme party in America right now is the Republican Party, and that’s why we’ve been winning elections,” Perez said. “Because independent and moderate voters and Lincoln Republicans have been voting for Democrats.”