Republicans see warning signs after election losses


National News

November 7, 2019 - 9:54 AM

President Donald Trump stands with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell during a campaign rally. The president was visiting Kentucky the day before Election Day in support of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. Democrat Andy Beshear won the race. GETTY IMAGES/BRYAN WOOLSTON/TNS

WASHINGTON — Off-year election results in three key states — Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky — serve as a flashing red warning light for Republicans worried that President Donald Trump’s deep unpopularity outside rural areas may threaten their grip on the White House, the Senate and numerous state legislatures.

But in Washington, where Republicans are expected to ardently defend Trump when the first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry opens next week, GOP lawmakers are unlikely to alter their approach, at least in the short term.

The statewide contests Tuesday inevitably reflected local candidates and conditions. But several races drew high-profile campaigners, millions of dollars in out-of-state contributions, and were widely seen as a test of voter enthusiasm and party momentum one year ahead of the 2020 election.

In many cases, they reflected Republican struggles in suburban areas that once were crucial to GOP advances.

“There are some canaries in the coal mine right now and we in the party would do ourselves a favor by paying attention,” said Jim Merrill, a Republican consultant based in New Hampshire, where Democrats also made significant gains in local races. Some polls show Trump’s approval ratings have tanked in a state he lost by 0.4% in 2016.

Republicans sought to cast the apparent loss of the governor’s seat in Kentucky — Republican Matt Bevin trailed Democrat Andy Beshear on Wednesday by 5,100 votes with 100% of returns tallied — as an outlier, the result of a deeply unpopular incumbent who ran a bad race. Republicans won other statewide races there, they note.

But the race also showed the limits of the GOP’s increasing dependence on the president. On Monday, Trump held a raucous election eve rally with Bevin in Lexington, Ky., and sought to nationalize the governor’s race as a referendum on the impeachment battle roiling Washington, and on the president himself.

Trump told cheering supporters at the rally that a Bevin loss would send “a really bad message,” and pleaded, “You can’t let that happen to me.” He looked to save face Wednesday, tweeting that the rally had given Bevin “at least 15 points,” a claim at odds with state polls.

For the president’s own reelection race — and for Republicans looking further ahead — the results in Virginia and Pennsylvania were more alarming. Trump lost Virginia in 2016 but pulled an upset in Pennsylvania, long a Democratic bastion.

Despite a scandal in Richmond last spring that almost forced out the Democratic governor, Virginia Democrats won control Tuesday of both chambers of the state Legislature, marking the first time since 1993 that the party will control the governorship and the legislative branch.

And in Philadelphia’s vast suburban counties, Democrats took control of local government in several longtime Republican strongholds, including Delaware County, which Democrats haven’t controlled since the Civil War, and Chester County, which has never had a Democrat-led council in its history.

Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist in Washington who worked for a decade as chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sees those results as “huge warnings” for Republicans.

“What we’ve seen in the Trump era is suburban Republicans are a less reliable Republican vote than rural Democrats, and you can get away with it in states like Kentucky,” he said. “But it’s really hard to get away with it in states like Pennsylvania, where you have huge population numbers that just can’t be overcome in rural areas.”

These swing voters tend to be moderate, and Trump still could win them back if he successfully paints his opponent as an extremist who doesn’t reflect their values.

“There is not a single socialist among them and they are probably horrified by the likes of Elizabeth Warren,” Holmes added. But many are high-income, highly educated and well-informed voters “who obviously have a big problem with the Republican Party right now.”