Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin isn’t a near-certain loser in Tuesday’s election because of Donald Trump. But the President, despite his best efforts, couldn’t save the GOP incumbent, either.
That Bevin is 5,000 votes short of state Attorney General Andy Beshear (D) with virtually all the votes counted in Kentucky — Beshear has claimed victory — is, primarily Bevin’s fault. He spent his first term picking all sorts of dumb fights — with public school teachers, with his own party — that left him as one of the most unpopular governors in the country. Bevin’s problems were compounded by Beshear’s profile as the state’s top cop with a golden last name (his father, Steve, spent eight years in the governor’s mansion amassing a largely moderate record).
But to write off this race — and its result — as having nothing at all to do with Trump, and the broader rhetorical and stylistic approach to politics that we can call “Trumpism,” is also a mistake.
After all, the President was in Kentucky the day before Tuesday’s election. And he said this to Bevin: “If you lose, they’re going to say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. This was the greatest. You can’t let that happen to me!”
Then there is the fact that Bevin, beginning this summer, sought to turn the race into a national referendum on Trump and the broader fight over impeachment playing out in the nation’s capital. He would regularly pledge at campaign rallies that he stood strong with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence while Beshear did not and would not. (Beshear tried to make the race about local issues, largely avoiding associations to his national party.)
Even in his (re)selling of himself to voters, Bevin sought to play up his Trump ties. As the Louisville Courier Journal’s Phillip M. Bailey noted on Tuesday, Bevin cast himself on the campaign trail as Trump-before-Trump: An outsider businessman who roiled the political elites (in both parties) and broke some things in order to get stuff done.
So, no, Trump wasn’t on the ballot. But there was a whole lot of Trump (and Trump talk and ties) in the governor’s race in its final days. And yet, Bevin still lost.
Why? A few reasons:
1) Trump isn’t a cure-all: There’s no doubt that Trump helps rally a certain element within the GOP base — rural, white and male voters predominantly. And while Bevin wasn’t down 15 points in the race’s final days — as Trump claimed on Twitter in the wake of the likely loss — the incumbent had struggled throughout the campaign and was, at best, a 50-50 bet going into Election Day on Tuesday.
2) Trump rallies the opposition: Turnout in urban areas and the most progressive parts of the state soared on Tuesday, thanks in no small part to the President’s presence in the state on Monday. Liberals loathe Trump, and the President being plastered all over the local news in the final 24 hours of the race reminded those sorts of voters what was at stake on Tuesday.
3) Bevin is no Trump: Trump is an entertainer, with a type of wit, humor and real charisma. Bevin, well, isn’t. Where Trump comes across to his supporters as a hugely successful businessman who can and will tell anyone in the country (or the world!) exactly what he thinks of them, Bevin reads more humorless scold. Trump without the personality isn’t a winner.
Given all of that, making the leap from a Bevin loss to a Trump loss is a mistake. Trump, for better and worse, is a solitary and unique figure. There really just isn’t anyone else like him.
But there’s a lot of room between “Bevin didn’t lose because of Trump” and “what happened on Tuesday night had nothing to do with Trump and means nothing for 2020.” Combine the results in the Kentucky governor’s race with the new Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate won Tuesday in Virginia — thanks to surging turnout for Democrats in suburban seats — and you see much of what we saw in the 2018 midterms: A hugely revved up Democratic base and a damaged GOP brand in the suburbs. Both of those trends will matter, potentially hugely, as Trump tries to get reelected in 2020.
Donald Trump couldn’t save Matt Bevin on Tuesday night. It remains to be seen whether he can save himself next November.