Andy Beshear’s stunning apparent victory in the Bluegrass State’s governor’s race was about one thing and one thing only. And Republicans should be terrified.
All hail the glorious power of Donald John Trump, 45th president of the United States, the greatest motivator of voter turnout in our lifetimes! Sing his praises as a man with the power to hold a single rally that alters the course of elections! Bow down and touch the hem of his robe, knowing that when he tweets, things happen.
Of course, this all applies only if you’re a Democrat.
For you, Donald Trump is the greatest political gift imaginable, a universal solvent that dissolves intra-party squabbling, makes policy unnecessary, and motivates your voters to knock doors, work phones, donate money, and get out on Election Day, rain or shine. Hell, considering how much he’s done for the Democratic Party to date, you should be sending him a DoorDash of Kentucky Fried Chicken on the daily and naming your kids after the man.
For Republicans, you are—and this is a term of art from politics and polling with which you might want to familiarize yourself—fucked.
The Kentuckistan Oblast is one of the reddest red states in a belt of red states in the reddest part of the country. By every metric, the election last night should have been a wipeout for the Democrats. A spanking. A beatdown. They should have been humiliated and driven from the field. Republicans enjoy a Cook Partisan Voting Index in Kentucky of R+10. Trump won the state by 30 percentage points. In 2016, Trump got 22 percent of the Democratic vote in the Bluegrass State. It’s religious, it’s rural, and it’s got all the demographic markers of a safe Republican state.
But this is 2019 in the age of Trump, and Andy Beshear went into the campaign running against two fantastic opponents: Incumbent GOP Governor Matt Bevin—and Trump.
Bevin proves that the full-on embrace of the fuck-you style of Trumpism is a political dead end. His snippy, ugly behavior was an echo of Trump’s, and it was ugly, and exhausting. The performative asshole act may work on Fox News, but in any office other than the Trump White House it’s grating and tiresome.
Trump is a 360-degree dick; he’s repellent from any angle of approach, but he’s spent a career playing a dick on television. His reality-TV shtick doesn’t fit for other candidates, and it doesn’t scale. Voters in Kentucky—and, call me crazy, but in most places—want people who connect with their state, district, and city, not imitators of a bellowing tool with political Tourette’s.
Sure, the Republicans will go to fight this one out in court, trying for a recount, and Democrats shouldn’t get over their skis. Kentucky is still a red state—down-ballot races proved it—and Mitch McConnell still has seventeen trillion dollars at his fingertips to nuke Amy McGrath. But Democrats won a big one, and it’s an important one.
There’s a profound lesson from the Kentucky race that the Democratic presidential field will almost certainly ignore: Andy Beshear didn’t exactly run on a plan to eat the rich, for the workers to seize the means of production, gun confiscation, or mandatory Sharia Drag Hour at the local Young Pioneers camp. He ran on health care, education, and the economy as a classic centrist Democrat in a red state.
Beshear made the race about Kentucky while Bevin tried to make it about Trump. Bevin’s only hope was to nationalize the race, and he did, but without the results he expected. Bevin’s campaign wasn’t just a base-only strategy; it was a Trump-base-only strategy.
His scare ads on impeachment—featuring breathless spots with Bernie Sanders, AOC, and Nancy Pelosi—couldn’t overcome the headwinds of Trumpism.
In the Kentucky suburbs, the race was a referendum on Trump, because Bevin made it one. A Democratic candidate who ran a campaign that stayed out of the hot-button areas the Republican team often—quite often—weaponize and win on was a small political miracle in and of itself. That Beshear was competitive financially and politically was even more surprising. His win last night, however close, was remarkable.
In Virginia, the state GOP made a suicide pact with Trump, strapped on the bomb vest and flipped the switch. The edge case screamers, the devotees of pure Trumpism, and the coward’s caucus of Republicans who knew better and stayed silent have reaped a political whirlwind.
Virginia could have been a place where modern conservatism and a smart, inclusive GOP built a better model for the party more broadly, but instead, they let Trump kill them. Unified control of a state government is a power unlike any the GOP in Virginia has seen in our era, and they’re about to learn some very hard lessons.
I hope those hats were worth it.
I’ll dismiss the retention of the governor’s office in Mississippi by a Republican by noting that the sun still rose in the east this morning, coffee is still God’s gift, and at some point today Twitter will be a blighted hellscape. A sense of relief at holding a statewide office in Mississippi is not something to be proud of, Republicans.
At his Monday night rally for Matt Bevin at the famed Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, Donald Trump said, “You’ve got to vote. If you lose, they’ll say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world… You can’t let that happen to me.”
Spoiler: It happened to him.
Donald Trump proved this week that big rallies, big talk, and bad campaigns are a recipe for electoral disaster, and alienated suburban voters are a dagger in the heart of the GOP. As he’s consumed the Republican party like a parasite from the inside out, he’s spawned a pack of unelectable imitators and acolytes like Matt Bevin.
Trump has always made it about himself. He got his wish, and the Democrats captured a red-state governor’s mansion.