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Can Governor Matt Bevin overcome his unpopularity by casting fall contest as conservative vs. liberal?
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
Consider if you will a leader who is unapologetic, unconventional and unleashed. Who is in office not because of, but in spite of, the political class and cares little for its opinions.
A man whose opponents are reduced to sputtering fits of rage at the mere mention of his name. Who plays happily to his base, unperturbed by tepid approval ratings.
That, of course, describes Donald Trump, but it also describes the central player in the South’s hottest governor’s race in 2019 — which could very well be the first canary in the coal mine telling us how Trump himself might fare in 2020.
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin is running for re-election after four turbulent years in Frankfort, in which he sparred with his fellow Republicans in the legislature, accused teachers of endangering students by leaving their classrooms to protest changes in their pensions, and lamented that Americans had become “soft” after school districts canceled classes during a subfreezing cold snap.
He has even endured the worst indignity that can befall a Kentucky politician — being booed lustily by the crowd on Derby Day.
In November, Bevin will face Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, the son of his predecessor, who over the past four years has made it his personal mission to sue Bevin — over pension reform, over higher education cuts and, most recently, over subpoenas issued to teachers who called in sick to protest at the Capitol.
The blood here is bad. Bevin went after Beshear’s mother, Kentucky’s former first lady, removing her from a commission that oversees a state horse park and taking her name off of a state-run visitor’s center.
Beshear likes to tell voters that the bombastic Bevin, who grew up in New Hampshire, just wasn’t raised right, a rather serious insult down South.
A preview of both camps’ general election strategies was full display on the night of May’s primary. Beshear called Bevin a bully and said the election would be about “right versus wrong.” Bevin called Beshear a liberal and said the election would be about right versus left.
The governor is betting that a binary choice between himself and a “liberal” candidate will work to his advantage in Kentucky, just as Trump is painting his re-election as a binary choice between him and the “socialists” he says are running amok in the Democratic Party.
The question will be whether, when it comes time for voters to render a verdict, the pull of that binary choice will be stronger than the incumbents’ personal unpopularity (which is, arguably, how Trump became president in the first place).
In a sense, Bevin was Trump before Trump was Trump. His came on the political scene in 2014 with a kamikaze mission to unseat U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell in a Republican primary with Tea Party support. In 2015, he won the GOP primary for governor by less than 100 votes after his two better-known rivals savaged each other. He won the general election by opposing same-sex marriage and tying his Democratic opponent to Barack Obama.
But as controversies have mounted, his fortunes have fallen. When Morning Consult looked at gubernatorial approval ratings in April, Bevin came in dead last, at just 33 percent and nearly 20 points under water.
Being tagged as America’s most unpopular governor is certainly no badge of honor when running for re-election, although Bevin, characteristically, insists he pays no attention to such things.
The governor’s job approval is about 10 points lower than Trump’s, and, while the president retains strong support among Republicans, Bevin could only manage to win 52 percent in May’s GOP primary, against three little-known opponents.
However, if the strategy of presenting a binary choice against a liberal is going to work anywhere, it should work in Kentucky, home to many rural, white, religious voters who propelled Trump to a whopping 40-point win in 2016.
Abortion is likely to be the key fault line in Bevin’s quest to paint Beshear as too liberal. Bevin opposes legal abortion; Beshear supports it and has refused to defend abortion restrictions passed by the legislature in court.
Bevin has also, not surprisingly, wrapped himself firmly in Trump’s aura. The president is featured prominently in his campaign ads and is expected to travel to the Bluegrass this fall to campaign for him.
A Bevin victory, despite weak poll numbers and ceaseless controversy, would be a boon for the binary choice strategy and a testament to Trump’s enduring popularity among his supporters.
A Bevin defeat could show the limits of trying to overcome marked unpopularity through ideological contrast. While that won’t have implications for 2020 in places such as Kentucky where Trump is popular, it could illustrate the limits of a contrast strategy in battleground states he needs to win.
No matter how Bevin vs. Beshear 2019 turns out, it will be loud, expensive and mean — just the thing to get us ready for Trump vs. Democrats 2020.
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Insight: Democrats display collective amnesia by blocking public testimony of Justin Fairfax’s accusers
Legislators need to hear Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson’s accusations against Virginia’s lieutenant governor
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
(CFP) — Collective amnesia is on display these days in Richmond, where Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Democrats in the House of Delegates are resisting calls to allow two women who have accused Fairfax of sexual assault to testify publicly.
Instead of the public testimony by his accusers, Fairfax wants prosecutors in North Carolina and Boston — where the alleged assaults took place — to investigate cases that are 19 and 15 years old, respectively, knowing full well that said prosecutors have absolutely no incentive to get involved in cases that involve no one now living in their jurisdictions and are unlikely to lead to criminal prosecution.
Fairfax knows this because he used to be a prosecutor. He has also trotted out results of two polygraph tests that he passed as proof of vindication, conveniently ignoring the fact that there is a reason these tests aren’t allowed in court — because every scientific study that has looked at the technology has concluded it’s not reliable.
Virginia House Democrats are resisting public testimony because, in the words of Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, the hearing proposed by Republicans would turn into “a politically motivated and unprecedented spectacle.”
Unprecedented? Really? Why, it’s as if they don’t remember Brett Kavanagh and Christine Blasey Ford.
Advocates in the #MeToo movement have also long asserted, with considerable justification, that victims of sexual assault should be believed because they have nothing to gain, and a lot to lose, from cooking up false claims against powerful men. And multiple claims increase credibility because they corroborate a pattern of behavior (just ask Al Franken and Roy Moore, neither of whom is a senator.)
In this case, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson — who did not know each other and had never met before being swept up in this maelstrom — tell remarkably similar stories. How Fairfax disarmed them with friendliness, got them alone, and then pounced on them using physical force. How he may have targeted them because he knew both women had suffered sexual abuse in their pasts. How traumatized both women still are, more than 15 years later.
To dismiss their claims, you have to believe that these two women, one living in California and the other living in Maryland, both decided to make up similar allegations against the same man years later; in Watson’s case, you also have to believe that she told people Fairfax assaulted her back in 2000 (as she says she did) in anticipation, apparently, of the day she would spring her sinister trap and make him pay.
For what reason? To what end? Fairfax himself has not speculated on this. But surely he must have a theory. Why do Tyson and Watson feel such white hot hatred toward him that they would put themselves in jeopardy for revenge, years and years after their interactions with him?
One theory that has emerged with a vengeance on social media is that this is all an effort by Republicans to bring down a powerful black man rising through the political ranks. But these women are unlikely conspirators — Watson and Tyson are also black, and Tyson met Fairfax when both were working at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Perhaps the most pernicious bit of nonsense in all of this is the assertion being made, mostly on social media, that because Watson had accused another man of rape before accusing Fairfax, she is somehow less credible. So, rather than saying, “Oh my God, this poor woman has been raped twice,” we should say, “this b**** must be making this up”? Does that make any sense, particularly when Watson claims that Fairfax himself told her that he thought her previous rape would make her less likely to call police?
Or does it make more sense to conclude that Fairfax did what he’s accused of doing and is now paddling furiously to save what’s left of his political career?
In his recent news conference where he released the polygraph results, Fairfax said, “Let me begin by emphasizing how important it is to listen to women when they come forward withe allegations of sexual assault or harassment.” OK, if you truly believe that, then what possible reason can Democrats have for not letting Tyson and Watson testify publicly and letting the chips fall where they may? After all, Brett Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court today.
Letting Tyson and Watson and Fairfax all testify before legislators would, no doubt, create a media circus. But what is the alternative? Prosecutors in North Carolina and Boston probably won’t, and certainly shouldn’t, waste their time and taxpayers’ money investigating claims that aren’t likely to lead to a criminal prosecution. And this is no longer about whether Fairfax should go to jail — it’s about whether he’s fit to remain in high political office, a question that certainly falls under the purview of Virginia legislators.
The legal standard is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But the political standard is, do we believe these women? And if we do, what should happen to Justin Fairfax?
In the Kavanaugh case, Republicans did not let credible allegations keep him from a lifetime on the Supreme Court. But at least they allowed Ford to have her say and let the public judge her credibility. Do Watson and Tyson deserve any less?
Virginia House Republicans have been reluctant to proceed with hearings without Democratic participation, no doubt because doing so would be seen as nakedly partisan. But should Democratic recalcitrance trump the need to fully and publicly vet serious, credible allegations against the second most powerful man in state government?
And can anyone say, with a straight face, how much we need to listen to sexual assault victims while at the same time thwarting efforts to let them be heard?
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Democratic and Republican campaign arms are targeting 25 Southern seats
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CFP) — The U.S. House campaign arms for both parties have released their first list of targets for 2020, with Southern Democrats playing an unfamiliar role they haven’t enjoyed in recent cycles — on defense, protecting their 2018 gains.
Next year’s congressional battles in the South will take place almost entirely in the suburbs. Nearly all of the 25 districts being targeted by both parties contain suburban areas around large cities, territory where Democrats made major gains last November and hope to make more.
The National Republican Congressional Committee — trying to claw its way back into a majority after a disappointing 2018 — is targeting 12 Democrat-held seats across the South, 10 of which are held by by freshmen who flipped seats, including three seats in Virginia, two each in Texas and Florida, and seats won in breakthroughs in Oklahoma, South Carolina and Georgia.
Among the targets are eight Democratic freshmen who supported Nancy Pelosi’s bid for House speaker — a vote that is sure to be front and center on TV screens when 2020 rolls around.
Only two veteran Democrats, both in Florida, are on the GOP’s target list — Charlie Crist in the Clearwater-based 13th District, and Stephanie Murphy in the 7th District in metro Orlando. Both districts look competitive on paper, although neither Crist nor Murphy had much trouble in 2018.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting 13 Republican-held seats across the South, an audacious list that includes nine veteran GOP incumbents, some with decades of experience.
And while Democrats will have to defend a bumper crop of incumbents, just two of the Southern Democratic targets are freshman Republicans — Ross Spano in Florida’s 15th District and Chip Roy in Texas’s 21st District.
Defending long-term incumbents is usually easier that defending freshmen seeking a second term, which could give
Republicans an advantage overall in the South in 2020.
The GOP has another advantage — while its targets are nearly evenly split between districts that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, 12 of the 13 Democratic targets are in districts Trump carried, which will be more difficult to flip. (The lone exception is Will Hurd in Texas’s 23rd District.)
Democrats are also unlikely to replicate the wave they enjoyed in 2018, which carried them to victory in some rather unlikely places.
Still, Republicans find themselves with the unexpected — and unwelcome — prospect of spending energy and money to reclaim seats in such normally red areas as Oklahoma City, Charleston and the suburbs of Atlanta, Houston and Dallas.
Among the Republican freshman targeted, Spano, whose district stretches inland from the suburbs of Tampa, may be vulnerable in 2020 after admitting that he borrowed money from two friends that he then plowed into his election campaign, which is a violation of federal campaign finance laws.
He blamed bad advice from this then-campaign treasurer; Democrats are pushing for an investigation.
Roy, a former top aide to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, won by just two points in 2018. His district includes suburbs of Austin and San Antonio and rural areas to the west.
One seat on the Democrats’ list, Georgia’s 7th District in Atlanta’s northwest suburbs, will be open, thanks to the pending departure of Rob Woodall, who decided to retire after winning by just 400 votes in 2018. Another seat, North Carolina’s 9th District, is vacant due to an ongoing dispute over allegations of absentee ballot fraud.
Democrats have decided to forgo, at least for now, targeting two seats that they tried and failed to flip in 2018 — Arkansas’s 2nd District in metro Little Rock, held by French Hill, and West Virginia’s 3rd District, which takes in the southern third of the state, held by Carol Miller.
However, they are once again trying to flip Kentucky’s 6th District, in and around Lexington, where Andy Barr held off a spirited challenge from Democratic newcomer Amy McGrath, who raised a whopping $8.6 million.
McGrath hasn’t said if she’s running again. Senate Democrats have been encouraging her for forgo a rematch with Barr and instead challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The toughest sled for Democrats will be taking out nine veteran Republicans they have targeted, including five in Texas alone.
Among the Texas targets are five men who between them have more than 60 years of seniority: John Carter in the 31st District in the northern Austin suburbs; Kenny Marchant in the 24th District in Dallas-Ft. Worth; Mike McCaul in the 10th District that stretches from Austin toward Houston; and Pete Olson in 22nd District in Houston’s western suburbs.
Until the 2018 cycle, these Texas seats had been thought safely Republican. But Carter and Marchant won by just 3 points in 2018; McCaul won by 4 points and Olson by 5 points.
Democrats are also going after Brian Mast in Florida’s 18th District north of Palm Beach; and, in North Carolina, George Holding, in the 2nd District around Raleigh, and Ted Budd, in 13th District between Charlotte and Greensboro.
The freshmen that Democrats will have to defend including two in the Miami area, Donna Shalala in the 27th District, and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in the 26th District; Lucy McBath in Georgia’s 6th District in Atlanta’s northeast suburbs; Kendra Horn in the Oklahoma City-based 5th District; and Joe Cunningham, who represents the South Carolina Low Country in the 1st District.
Three freshmen Democrats in Virginia are also on the list — Elaine Luria, who represents the 2nd District in Hampton Roads; Abigail Spanberger, who represents the 7th District in the Richmond suburbs, and Jennifer Wexton, whose 10th District includes the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.
The Republican target list also includes two Texas freshman: Colin Allred, who represents the 32nd District in metro Dallas, and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who represents the 7th District in metro Houston.
All of these freshmen, except for Spanberger and Cunningham, voted for Pelosi for speaker.
Among the GOP targets, Shalala and Wexton are likely in the least danger, as both represent districts Hillary Clinton carried easily in 2016. Horn, McBath and Cunningham — whose 2018 wins were among the biggest surprises of the election cycle — are likely in the most jeopardy.
Democrats’ success in 2018 was largely the result of raising enough money to be competitive in GOP-held districts, in many cases even outraising incumbents who didn’t take their races seriously enough.
Democratic freshmen being targeted in 2020 should have no problem raising money; neither will challengers to Republican incumbents who had close calls in 2018. Members of the majority party also tend to have easier access to campaign money than the party out of power.
Still, 2020 will no doubt see Republicans loaded for bear, with two years to regroup and build up their treasuries, leaving voters facing loud, expensive and contentious races across the South.
Heading into 2020, Republicans hold 101 seats among delegations in the 14 Southern states; Democrats have 50, with one vacant seat in North Carolina.
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Democrats’ short-term problem isn’t rallying their base; it’s getting buried in small towns and rural areas
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
Heading into the midterm elections, there was a great deal of chatter around the thesis that Democrats had found a new way to win statewide races in the South — by nominating liberals who fashion themselves as “progressives” and could rally base and minority voters.
No more mamby pamby moderates, please. Give Southerners liberalism unvarnished, and they would come.
As Democrats look ahead to 2020, the results in the South in 2018 illustrate why the strategy of tacking to the left, both regionally and nationally, may play right into the hands of the two men they most love to hate, Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In November, Democrats made major pushes in the five largest Southern states — Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia — targeting federal and statewide races. The only place that strategy worked well was in Virginia, already reliably in the Democratic column.
In Florida, with Gillum and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson leading their ticket, Democrats took just two of the nine targeted House seats and lost both a Senate seat and the governor’s race — in fact, every statewide race except for agriculture commissioner.
In Texas, with O’Rourke leading the way by not beating Ted Cruz, Democrats took just two of eight targeted House seats, and all eight GOP incumbents running for re-election statewide won – Governor Greg Abbott by more than 1 million votes.
In Georgia, Abrams’s candidacy helped the suburban doughnut around Atlanta to the Democratic column, costing Republicans one House seat. But she fell short against an opponent, Brian Kemp, who lacked her polish or political skills.
In North Carolina, none of the House seats targeted by Democrats flipped, though they did manage to reduce the GOP’s previously veto-proof majority in the legislature.
The results for Democrats were even more grim in the smaller Southern states. In Arkansas, where as recently as 2010 Democrats held the governorship and every statehouse post, they didn’t come within 20 points in any statewide race and lost every federal race for the third election in a row.
So why is this important in 2020? Because if Democrats can’t win statewide races in the South, they face daunting math in both the Electoral College and the Senate. And the near total failure of out-and-out “progressive” candidates to win in 2018 raises serious questions about the wisdom of nominating them two years from now.
If Trump sweeps the South outside of Virginia, he’s at 167 electoral votes. Add to that the 36 votes of the reliably Republican states in the West and Great Plains, and he’s at 203. And in every presidential election but one since World War II, the same candidate that has carried Florida also carried Ohio, which puts him at 221.
Thus, Trump would need just 49 electoral votes from the remaining states; in 2016, he got 85. To deny him the presidency, a Democrat would have to take away Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, with no room for error.
Now consider how much easier it would be for a Democrat to beat Trump if he or she could pick off some states in the South, as both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did on their way to the White House.
The Senate math is even more daunting. Of the 22 Republican-held seats up in 2020, 12 are in the South and six in those reliably Republican areas in the West. Democrats must also defend a seat in Alabama.
Democrats need to flip four seats to get to a majority. So if they are shut out in the South, including Alabama, the best they can hope for is a 50-50 tie, even if they run the table in the four remaining GOP-held states — Arizona, Iowa, Colorado and Maine.
Of course, proponents of the with-progressives-we-can-win-strategy will point to the fact that O’Rourke, Gillum and Abrams came closer to victory than Democrats have in recent elections — and also closer than Phil Bredesen, the Democratic moderate in Tennessee’s Senate race.
That may be true, but it also begs this question: Given the political winds blowing in Democrats’ favor in 2018, might they have won those close races had they nominated candidates more willing to trim their progressive sails?
Long-term demographic trends, particularly more urban and minority voters and a shift toward Democrats in the suburbs of major cities, do threaten Republican hegemony in the South. But 2020 is not the long term.
The biggest short-term problem for Democrats in the South is that they are getting buried in small towns and rural areas outside of major cities with majority white populations, digging a hole so deep that there are not enough urban, suburban and minority voters to get them out of it.
Kemp took at least 70 percent of the vote in half of Georgia’s counties. In the 350 miles of Florida from Pensacola to Jacksonville, Gillum won just two counties. And if you drew a line across Texas from El Paso to Austin to Houston, O’Rourke’s only victories north of that line were in Dallas and Fort Worth.
If Democrats can’t fix their problem with rural voters, they are unlikely to win statewide in the South in 2020 — and 2018 shows that throwing self-styled progressives against the Republicans’ big red wall is certainly not the solution.
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Across the region, at least 30 House seats are potentially competitive, all of them now in GOP hands
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
A month away from the 2018 midterm election, Republicans in the South are finding themselves in a situation they haven’t faced in several election cycles.
Namely, playing defense in U.S. House races.
Currently, at least 30 seats are either highly or potentially competitive across the 14 Southern states. And not one of those seats is now held by a Democrat.
Of course, this disparity is to be expected, given that Republicans hold 114 Southern House seats to just 40 for Democrats. With such a dominant majority, the GOP has more of the field to defend.
However, the fluid situation in 2018 stands in stark contrast to 2016, when Democrats managed to take away just two seats anywhere in the South, and in 2014, when Democrats suffered a net loss of three seats.
Democratic opportunities have opened up across the region, including a few isolated districts in states such as Arkansas, West Virginia, Kentucky and South Carolina, where President Donald Trump won massive victories in 2016.
But the Democrats’ biggest hopes of trying to chip away at the Republicans’ Southern hegemony lie in suburban swing districts in the largest Southern states, including Florida, Texas, Virginia and North Carolina.
Of the 11 highly competitive districts, three are in Virginia and two each are in Florida, Texas and North Carolina. There are also two seats in metro Atlanta where Republicans are currently favored but Democrats are within striking distance.
Of the six Republican-held seats that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, the Republican candidate is currently ahead in just one, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd’s seat in West Texas.
Those five seats are perhaps the most endangered. But Democrats also have a decent shot at seats in the Kentucky Bluegrass, metro Little Rock and the coalfields of southern West Virginia.
And in Texas, which has been a wasteland for Democrats for the better part of three decades, at least eight House seats are competitive in 2018.
What has made the difference for Democrats in this election cycle as opposed to 2014 and 2016? Part of the answer may be money.
According to Federal Election Commission reports, 16 Democratic House nominees have raised more than $1 million, led by Amy McGrath in Kentucky’s 6th District, who raised more than $3 million. Another nominee, Clarke Tucker in Arkansas’s 2nd District, is likely to break the million dollar barrier before all is said and done.
Money does not, by itself, make a seat competitive. But anyone who has a million dollars to spend on a House race has to be taken seriously, no matter the traditional partisan lean of the district.
Having to play defense in the South also has significant implications for Republican chances of keeping control of the House.
The region has been the GOP’s big red wall, supplying nearly 60 percent of its House majority. So any erosion in that wall is an unwelcome development, particularly in an election where polls show Democrats with a lead in the generic congressional ballot.
Still, one should be careful not to overstate Democratic prospects in the South in 2018. If Democrats take half of the current seats that are toss-ups and Republicans hold all the seats where they are now ahead, the net Democratic gain across the region would only be six seats.
However, given that Democrats only need to shift a net of 24 seats nationally to take control of the House, the loss of six seats in the GOP heartland could prove problematic. A blue wave in Texas or Virginia — the states where Democratic hopes are highest — could be catastrophic.
The one thing we can be sure of is that on election night, the political class will be paying more attention to the results of House races in the South than has been paid in quite some time.
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