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Insight: What do 2019’s election results in the South tell us about 2020?

Wins in Kentucky and Louisiana aren’t nirvana for Democrats, but they do show limits to GOP strategy of socialist pigeonholing

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Now that the dust has cleared from elections in four Southern states earlier this month, what are the lessons, if any, for 2020 elections in which both the presidency and control of Congress will be on the line?

Some pundits in the chattering class and Democratic politicians have looked at victories by Democrats in governor’s races in deep red Kentucky and Louisiana and gleefully found evil portends for their GOP rivals next year.

That would be overreach.

Editor Rich Shumate

In Kentucky, Democrat Andy Beshear won because the Republican incumbent, Matt Bevin, was as popular as a skin rash after four years of gratuitous insults and irritation. In Louisiana, Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards — that rarest of creatures, a pro-life Democrat — had strong job approval numbers and ran as far away as he could from the Elizabeth Warrens and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes in his party.

Trump couldn’t push Republicans over the finish line in either race, but Republicans carried all of the other statewide contests in both states and had a clean sweep in of state offices in Mississippi. So it would be a mistake to see these Democratic wins as a referendum on Trump, and Democrats shouldn’t find much solace in what was otherwise a rather dismal showing.

Still, the wins by Beshear and Edwards showed that the Republican strategy of calling Democrats socialists and ginning up the faithful with Trump rallies has its limits, even in states that the president carried by more than 20 points. In states with more even strength between the parties — Florida, Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina — that strategy could be even less effective next year, particularly at the presidential level and in U.S. Senate races in the latter three states.

What should be of more concern to Republicans is the fact that the Democratic vote in cities and suburban areas was unusually strong and decidedly Democratic in 2019, mirroring a trend seen in 2018 when Democrats took control of the U.S. House.

Beshear won in Kentucky by carrying Louisville and Lexington and their suburbs by a margin of 135,000 votes, swamping Republican margins in the rest of the state. In Louisiana, Edwards won by carrying Baton Rouge, Shreveport and New Orleans by almost 165,000 votes, including winning almost 90 percent of the vote in Orleans Parish and carrying suburban Jefferson Parish — home of House GOP Whip Steve Scalise — by 14 points.

The news for Republicans was even worse in Virginia, where Democrats took control of both houses of the legislature — in elections that used maps drawn by Republicans to protect Republicans — by gaining more ground in the suburbs around Washington, Richmond, and Norfolk. Among the casualties was the last Republican House member representing a district in the inner Washington suburbs, which 20 years ago was undisputed GOP territory.

In 2018, newfound Democratic strength in the suburbs allowed the party to take competitive U.S. House seats in Atlanta, Richmond, Miami, Dallas and Houston — and get surprise wins in Oklahoma City and Charleston. If that trend, also seen in 2019, continues into 2020, it could potentially put more seats into play in Little Rock, Tampa, Lexington, San Antonio and across North Carolina, where a court recently forced Republican legislators to redraw gerrymandered maps.

Over in the Senate, Republicans are defending two seats in Georgia and seats in Texas and North Carolina where Democrats now have a plausible path to victory, if they can push the urban/suburban vote past the pro-Trump margin in small towns and rural areas as they did in 2019. And the eyes of the nation will be on Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be defending his seat in the wake of Beshear’s breakthrough.

McConnell’s job approval numbers are 13 points underwater in Kentucky, according to the latest Morning Consult survey, making him one of the nation’s least popular senators. However, McConnell has substantially more political acumen than Bevin and a much better political machine, and he could benefit if he faces a Democrat whom he can pigeonhole as a leftist.

McConnell’s campaign is already taking aim at his only announced Democratic rival, Amy McGrath, who raised $8.6 million in an unsuccessful congressional race in 2018 but started the campaign with an embarrassing flip-flop on whether she would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. (First she said yes, then she said no.)

Rocky Adkins, a folksy, pro-life state legislator from Eastern Kentucky who ran second to Beshear in this year’s gubernatorial primary, is also considering entering the race and could prove a much more slippery target for McConnell’s ad makers.

Democrats need a net gain of four seats to take control of the Senate; three seats will be enough if a Democrat also carries the White House. That task will be very uphill if they don’t make breakthroughs in the South.

In the presidential race, the question will be if any the Democrats in the 2020 field can survive in the South in a binary match-up against Trump and his faithful followers.

Virginia is probably a lock for the Democrats, and Florida and North Carolina are always in play. The wild cards will be Georgia and Texas, where the heavy urban-suburban Democratic vote seen in 2018 and 2019 could make things interesting if it materializes again in 2020. (Trump carried Georgia by just 5 points in 2016; the margin was 9 points in Texas.)

However, it should be noted that if either Beshear or Edwards were in the presidential race, they would be far and away the most conservative candidate in the Democratic field. So could a presidential candidate who is highly likely to be substantially to their left duplicate the success they had locally in 2019, particularly in states where the president remains more popular than he does nationally?

Mmmm … don’t bet the rent.

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