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Insight: Will Joe Biden really make a play for Georgia and Texas in 2020?

Why, despite the summertime chatter, putting resources into these states makes little strategic sense

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

The last time a Democratic presidential candidate carried Georgia, The Cover Girls (remember them?) were wishing on a star. The last time a Democrat carried Texas, people were still wearing bell bottoms.

Every four years, the pundit class and Democrats in these states insist that this time will be different — this year, finally, these states are going to flip. And every four years, Republicans scoff at their wishful thinking and hubris.

It’s deja vu all over again. Joe Biden’s campaign is making noises about competing in the Peach and Lone Star states, committing significant resources for a serious ground game in places where one hasn’t been seen in a generation.

So what are the chances this will actually happen? Probably pretty slim — not because it isn’t possible for Biden to win these states but because, if they are within reach, winning them won’t be necessary.

First, the numbers. Donald Trump carried Georgia by slightly more than 5 points in 2016, the smallest winning margin for a Republican since Bob Dole won by less than 2 points in 1996 in a three-way race. (By way of contrast, George W. Bush won by nearly 17 points in 2004.)

In Texas, Trump’s margin was larger, just under 9 points, but that was also the smallest winning margin for a Republican since Dole. (Bush won by more than 20 points.)

Clearly, the trend lines are headed in the Democrats’ direction, as even Republicans in these states would concede. These states are within (a long) reach.

However, in considering Electoral College strategy, it is helpful to think of the presidential race as a tug-of-war, with states arrayed along the rope in order from most Democratic to most Republican. The goal is to pull the rope far enough that there are at least 270 electoral votes on your side.

In 2016, six states on Trump’s side of the rope were closer than Georgia — the Southern states of Florida and North Carolina, along with Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona. Those six and Ohio were closer than Texas.

So, if Georgia is truly within reach for Biden in 2020, six Trump states are likely already in Biden’s hands; make that seven if Texas is in play. And if Biden is already carrying all of those states, he won’t need to bother with Georgia or Texas. He’s already won.

This is why, strategically, it would make little sense for the Biden campaign to put resources into Georgia and Texas. But there are three reasons we might see them do it anyway.

First, engaging in these states could help drive up Democratic turnout, which could help in U.S. Senate and down ballot races. However, presidential campaigns aren’t known for their altruism; we’re only likely to see this if the race is a blowout for Biden and he can spare the resources to benefit other candidates.

Second, making a play for Texas or Georgia could be an insurance policy in the event that something unexpected happens in one of the closer states, as happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016 in Michigan and Wisconsin. However, given that experience, Biden won’t be caught napping like Clinton was, making such a surprise less likely.

And third, putting resources into Georgia or Texas could be a way to troll the Trump campaign and force it to engage in these states. Even talking about the possibility forces the Trump forces to consider countermeasures.

However, if Trump needs to shore up either of these states come November, his battle is already lost, and what happens in Texas and Georgia won’t matter (although Biden could make a play for them to run up the score.)

So, all this summertime chatter about competing in Georgia and Texas may make interesting cable news conversation, but the smart money says that in the end, Biden won’t bite.

Then again, betting on presidential politics these days might, admittedly, be a bit of a fool’s errand.

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Insight: How the coronavirus crisis has set off odd, angry crosscurrents across Southern politics

Budget woes, religious liberty, economic freedom crash against public health concerns

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

The collision between an untreatable and potentially deadly virus and a conservative Southern political culture that is both business-friendly and skeptical of government dicta has sent odd and even angry crosscurrents rippling across the region’s politics.

For example, in Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves, who was slow to close down his state, had to backtrack on plans for a quick reopening when coronavirus cases rose, on the same day that legislators from both parties united to strip him of authority to spend a $1 billion pot of federal coronavirus money.

An angry Reeves accused them of “stealing.”

Editor Rich Shumate

In Nashville, Mayor John Cooper proposed a whopping 32 percent property tax increase to deal with a coronavirus-related shortfall in city revenue — and admitted that he agreed with critics who began howling about the possibility of sharply higher tax bills.

But, said Cooper, the city has no other choice.

In Kentucky, the new Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, joined a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a ban on interstate travel ordered by the new Democratic governor, Andy Beshear — which Beshear imposed because Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, wasn’t imposing stay-at-home orders as strict as what Beshear issued in the Bluegrass State.

In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp stubbornly stuck to plans to reopen his state, even though Peach State mayors and even President Donald Trump had urged him not to do so.

Coronavirus lockdowns have triggered angry protests across the South, and governors have struggled to stop pastors from holding church services — raising First Amendment arguments in the nation’s most religious section.

With a few exceptions, states in the South were among the last to close down due to the coronavirus, and they are now among the first to begin reopening, in spite of warnings from some public health officials that doing so might be dangerous.

The decisions being made by Southern governors certainly reflect the political split that coronavirus is increasingly causing nationwide, with conservatives willing to accept risk to revive the economy and liberals taking a more cautious (critics might say overcautious) approach that prioritizes public health over economic good.

Ten of the 14 Southern governors are Republicans, and the GOP controls both legislative chambers in every state except Virginia, fostering a political culture that tends to be friendly toward business interests and libertarian when it comes to questions of personal liberty.

But the push to reopen also reflects that fact that except for Louisiana, the coronavirus crisis has not been as extreme in the region as it has been in hot spots such as New York and New Jersey.

While Louisiana’s death rate per 100,000 people stands at 40, Georgia comes in at 11, and the rest of the Southern states are all less than 10 — statistics that bolster the arguments of unemployed people demanding an end to stay-at-home orders, although providing little comfort to people at higher risk for contracting COVID-19.

The push to reopen is also attractive to Southern leaders for another reason — the lockdown is blowing a hole in state and local budgets that will only get worse the longer it goes on, presenting an unpalatable choice between steep budget cuts or higher taxes.

State governments can’t deficit spend, and the income and sales tax revenues they rely on are falling sharply. The effect of the sales tax plunge will be particularly acute on three Southern states that don’t have an income tax to fall back on, Texas, Florida and Tennessee.

Florida — where Governor Ron DeSantis drew sharp criticism for being late to close — is also heavily reliant on taxes generated by tourism, which has been decimated by the crisis. Oil prices have also crashed, which affects Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, where lawmakers have been warned that they’ll need to deal with a $3 billion hit to the state’s budget.

Southern legislators have traditionally been reluctant to raise taxes, particularly income taxes in states that have them. But if they stick to that tradition, the cuts needed to balance budgets could be extreme — prompting outrage not only from those affected by the cuts, but also from those who believe the lockdowns were an unnecessary overreaction that caused more problems than they solved.

The strongest coronavirus crosscurrents have been seen in North Carolina and Kentucky, where Republicans control the legislature and Democratic governors were quicker to close and have been more reticent to reopen than their GOP counterparts.

In North Carolina, Roy Cooper faces the unenviable prospect of running for re-election in the middle of the pandemic against Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who has been pushing the governor to move more quickly to reopen parts of the state less affected by the virus.

Anti-lockdown protests have also grown in size and anger in North Carolina, with much of the ire directed toward Cooper.

In Kentucky, Beshear’s moves to clamp down on church services have drawn criticism from U.S. senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and other Republican leaders.

The GOP holds super-majorities in both houses of the legislature and could force Beshear to back down from his coronavirus restrictions, although — perhaps fortunately for the governor — legislators don’t have the power to call themselves back into session to undo his handiwork.

In the Southern state hit hardest by coronavirus, Louisiana, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards’s imposition of a lockdown has encountered less resistance. But even there, some Republicans in the legislature are now plotting to use an obscure state law to force him to reopen the state.

The coronavirus crisis has focused attention, both nationally and regionally, on governors; however, governors in just two Southern states, North Carolina and West Virginia, have to face the voters this fall.

Of more consequence come November will be whether the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis affects Republican candidates in races for federal offices, particularly the U.S. Senate, where 14 Southern seats are up.

That list includes both seats in Georgia, where Kemp has, for better or worse, forged his own path in dealing with the virus, and McConnell’s seat in Kentucky, where he’s already running ads touting his role in pushing coronavirus relief bills through Congress and his Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, is deriding those bills as a sop to special interests.

Because no one knows how long the coronavirus crisis will last, or how things will turn out, its political consequences are as yet unknowable, particularly because we’ve never been through a crisis quite like this before.

Political stability and certainty, it seems, lie among coronavirus’s victims. The rest is unlikely to be peaceful.

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March Madness: Presidential primary season turns South with a vengeance

10 Southern states hold primaries during March, with nearly 1,000 Democratic delegates at stake

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

The 2020 presidential primary calendar finally turns to the South on the last day of February, when South Carolina Democrats cast their ballots in their state’s first-in-the-South primary.

Then, buckle up. The political version of March Madness is about to take off.

During March, 10 Southern states will hold Democratic presidential primaries, with 981 delegates at stake — nearly 25 percent of the total pledged delegates who will officially pick the party’s presidential nominee in Milwaukee in July.

Louisiana, which votes in April, and West Virginia and Kentucky, which vote in May, are the only three Southern states who won’t pick delegates in March.

On March 3, seven Southern states — Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, Texas and North Carolina — will vote, with 621 Democratic delegates on the line, including 228 alone in the Lone Star State. Florida, with 219 delegates, goes two weeks later, and Georgia, with 105, goes the week after that.

In most of these states, the amount of public polling on the Democratic race has been sparse to non-existent. That, combined with the fluidity of the race after Iowa and New Hampshire, means all of the Southern races are shrouded in uncertainty.

So the presidential race takes on a twang, here are some things to watch for:

If Biden Bites the Dust: The former vice president’s campaign will be on life support, or worse, if he loses in South Carolina, which will particularly shake up the landscape in the South because of his heretofore solid support among African American voters.

Black voters make up a majority of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana; they are a smaller but still powerful group everywhere else. If Biden exits after South Carolina, his African American supporters will be looking for a new home, opening up an avenue for someone to come in and hoover up a crop of Southern delegates. Or, the black vote could fracture between multiple candidates, adding even more uncertainty to the overall race.

Bloomberg’s Debut: The March 3 Super Tuesday primaries (seven in the South and seven in other parts of the country) will be the first test for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been building staff and airing ads across the region while his competitors dallied and debated in the early states. If he can tap into Biden’s African American support, Bloomberg could become an unstoppable force; his performance across the South will tell us whether that’s probable or even possible.

Bernie, Bless His Heart: Four years ago, Hillary Clinton plum wore out Bernie Sanders all across the South. The only states he carried were West Virginia and Oklahoma (and how on earth did a self-described socialist win Oklahoma?), a haul that gave her an insurmountable delegate lead. Against a much more fractured field, Sanders is likely to improve on that dismal performance, but if Bloomberg or one of the other candidates puts together a coalition that sweeps the South, it could be deja vu all over again for Bernie and his ‘bros.

Wave the Rainbow Shirt: Pete Buttigieg is the first openly gay man to make a serious run for the presidential nomination in either political party. How will this play in the evangelical South? Or among culturally conservative African American voters? Polling to date has shed little light on this; the results in March might, although there are a myriad of reasons Buttigieg might falter in the South that have nothing to do with his sexual identity, particularly his sparse political resume.

Danged Yankees: The 2020 Democratic race features one current (Bloomberg) and one former (Sanders) New Yorker, along with candidates from Boston, Delaware, Minnesota, and Indiana. Indeed, for the first time since the modern primary process took root in the 1950s, a competitive Democratic primary race is taking off with nary a Southerner among the major players (if one remembers that for all her New York bona fides, Hillary Clinton was once first lady of Arkansas.) So to the degree that any regional political affinity remains, it won’t be in play in 2020, although Elizabeth Warren does try to remind folks at every opportunity that she grew up in Oklahoma. (As if that compensates for moving to Boston and becoming a Red Sox fan.)

Expanding The Map: If one considers that the primary — perhaps only — purpose of a presidential primary process is to pick a candidate who can win in November, the outcomes of Democratic primary season would seem a poor barometer to predict what might happen in the general election. After all, no matter how well a Democrat does in Arkansas or Alabama or Mississippi in March, she or he is not going to carry these states in November, unless something goes catastrophically wrong on the Republican side.

However, Florida and North Carolina will be hotly contested in the general election, and Democrats have hopes of flipping Texas and Georgia. So time, energy and money (think Bloomberg) expended in those states in the primary seasons could pay dividends down the line. (It’s worth noting that after Barack Obama organized in Virginia and Indiana to compete against Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primaries, he flipped both of those states in November.)

What About Trump? The GOP is holding primaries at the same time as Democrats in all of the Southern states except for South Carolina and Virginia, where they have been cancelled in deference to President Donald Trump. Trump, of course, has no serious opposition, but his campaign has embarked on a strategy of trying to drive up his vote totals in uncontested primaries as a sign of strength. So don’t be surprised if you see Trump parachuting into the South during March to rally his faithful — and, as a delightful bonus, to irritate the Democrats.

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Insight: Are the politics of Obamacare changing in the South?

Cracks are starting to show in the wall of Southern opposition to Medicaid expansion

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

After Obamacare made its way through Congress in 2009, triggering the Tea Party rebellion, Republican-controlled Southern statehouses became a redoubt of opposition to what critics saw as meddlesome socialist overreach.

ChickenFriedPolitics editor Rich Shumate

When, three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Obama administration couldn’t force states to enact a key Obamacare provision — expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income residents — most Southern states took advantage of the decision and didn’t.

Today, nine of the 14 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid are in the South, leaving more than 2.3 million low-income Southerners who would qualify for Medicaid without health care coverage, according to researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But there are some signs that the blanket opposition to expanding Medicaid in the South may be retreating, albeit slightly and slowly.

Louisiana and Virginia expanded Medicaid after electing Democratic governors in 2017. In Arkansas and Kentucky, where expansion passed under Democratic governors, it has endured despite their replacement by more skeptical Republicans.

In Florida and Oklahoma, petition drives are underway to put expansion on the ballot in 2020, doing an end-run around recalcitrant GOP leaders. And in Mississippi, a Democrat is trying to use expansion as a wedge issue to end a 16-year Republican lock on the governor’s office.

In states with expanded Medicaid, low-income people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — about $17,000 for an individual — can get coverage. In states without expansion, the income limit for a family of three is just under $9,000; single people are excluded entirely.

Most of the singles and families who are not eligible for traditional Medicaid don’t make enough money to get the tax credits they need to buy insurance on the Obamacare insurance exchanges. According to estimates from Kaiser, 92 percent of all Americans who fall into this coverage gap live in Southern states that haven’t expanded Medicaid, including nearly 800,000 people in Texas, 450,000 in Florida, 275,000 in Georgia, and 225,000 in North Carolina.

The federal government pays 90 percent of the cost of Medicaid expansion; states must pick up the rest. Republican leaders who oppose the idea have balked at making a financial commitment to such an open-ended entitlement, which Congress could change at any time.

But that argument didn’t hold in Virginia after Democrats campaigning on expansion nearly took control of the legislature in 2017. When expansion came up for a vote, 18 House Republicans who survived that blue wave joined Democrats to pass it.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, who issued an executive order on his first day in office to expand Medicaid, is now running for re-election touting that decision; voters will give their verdict in October.

In Mississippi, Attorney General Jim Hood is also making expanded Medicaid the centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign this year, arguing that his state, with the nation’s highest poverty rate, is cutting off its nose to spite its face by refusing to extend coverage to people who would benefit from it.

In Arkansas and Kentucky, where Democratic governors managed to push through expansion in 2014, the Republicans who replaced them have left the programs essentially intact, although they have fiddled at the edges by imposing premiums and work requirements on recipients. (Federal judges have blocked those changes.)

Die-hard Obamacare opponents have not been able to scuttle the program in either state — even in Arkansas, where the program has to be reauthorized annually by a three-fourths majority in both houses of the legislature.

In Florida and Oklahoma, supporters of expansion — including groups representing doctors, nurses and hospitals — are trying to put constitutional amendments expanding Medicaid coverage on the ballot in 2020.

Those ballot measures will be a key test of whether the public mood is more sympathetic to the idea of expansion than are the states’ conservative leaders, who have argued that the program is unaffordable and discourages people from seeking employment to secure health care.

However, the strategy of pursuing ballot initiatives is of limited use in the South because among states that haven’t expanded Medicaid, only Florida, Oklahoma and Mississippi allow the public to put measures on the ballot via petition. Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina do not.

In Florida, the ballot measure will also need to get approval from 60 percent of the voters to pass.

The question to be answered this year and next is whether the fiscal and philosophical arguments against expansion will hold against the argument that low-income Southerners — rural and urban, black and white — deserve health care coverage and will benefit from it, in spite of its association with Obamacare.

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Insight: Outcome of Kentucky governor’s race could be early indicator for Trump 2020

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

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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