Democrat Andy Beshear is leading in the gubernatorial race in Kentucky, a state made up mostly of rural counties, and Democrats won both legislative chambers in Virginia, another state with a significant rural population. They accomplished this with the help of rural voters, a group Trump overwhelmingly won in 2016.
They are generally viewed as part of Trump’s base, and the president often leans into rural voters’ cultural anxiety about a changing America. This is, in part, why he won the majority of these Americans in 2016 — 61 percent, according to exit polls. He probably hoped these voters would stick with him by backing the candidates he has endorsed as local leaders of his “Make America Great Again” vision.
But that wasn’t the case Tuesday, and it seems like Trump may have misinterpreted how influential his support would be on this demographic.
To be fair, voter sentiment toward Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) was not necessarily linked to his association with the president. Bevin is one of America’s most unpopular governors, with a 45 percent approval rating. Bevin’s approach to governing has been called abrasive, and he has found himself in highly charged conflicts with the news media, Kentucky’s teachers and even Republican lawmakers.
At a rally Monday, Trump praised the governor, saying: “He’s such a pain in the ass, but that’s what you want!”
Bevin’s promise to be a localized version of Trump does not appear to have been a winning strategy. Even Kentuckians who like the president voted against him. Residents in at least five rural counties that Trump won in 2016 voted against the man he asked them to support.
Former Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Michael Steele told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa: “Losing the governorship is a smack at both [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and the president, sending up a cautionary note.”
Virginia Democrats implemented a ground game aimed at rural voters, part of a strategy that helped them take over both legislative chambers on Tuesday. Democrats picked up two seats in the Virginia Senate and at least five in the House of Delegates, giving them control of both chambers in the General Assembly.
Heading into Election Day, Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), one of the few Democrats representing the rural Shenandoah Valley, predicted there could be an “upheaval” this year, given Virginia residents’ dissatisfaction with the Republican Party.
“There’s a path” to victory, Deeds told The Post’s Patricia Sullivan. “It’s hard, but it’s a path. If we could get every federal-election-year voter out in this district, we’ll win.”
The leftward shift was starker in more suburban areas, as my colleague Philip Bump noted this week. But the incremental shifts we saw could signal that more change is possible and that rural voters aren’t as sold on Trump as they were in 2016. And that could be for a few reasons.
Only about half of rural Americans support Trump. Yes, rural Americans are a part of Trump’s base, but they are not as sold on him as some other key demographics within the base, such as conservative Christians and white men without college degrees. Less than half, 48 percent, of rural voters approved of Trump’s job performance in the most recent Post-ABC News poll.
Rural America is more than white Midwestern conservatives. People of color, specifically black Americans and Latinos, make up large populations of rural America — more than many people seem to believe. About one-fifth, or nearly 10.3 million people, are people of color. And despite having many of the same — or worse — challenges as white Americans in their communities, people of color in rural areas often face the same hardships when it comes to racism, xenophobia and discrimination as people of color in big cities. And like people of color in major cities, these people tend to vote for liberal politicians.
Some question whether Trump has delivered for rural America. The GOP’s approach to health care, including its support of Trump’s desire to overturn the Affordable Care Act and its refusal to expand Medicaid for low-income Americans, is considered to be particularly harmful for rural Americans. And fears about trade wars with Mexico and China have led some farmers in rural America to doubt whether Trump’s policies are best for their community.
All of this could spell trouble for the president, who owes rural voters for his transition from Fifth Avenue to the White House. Maintaining the support of his base will be instrumental to his ability to win in 2020.
Rural voters were an important part of Trump’s base. According to a 2017 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey, the group was largely drawn to Trump’s cultural message — one that promised to return America to a bygone era, when the country’s increasing diversification did not cause great anxiety.
The GOP is banking on that continued cultural anxiety, along with Trump supporters’ opposition to the impeachment inquiry, to serve as a motivator for voters to keep the president and his fellow Republicans in power.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle are paying attention to rural voters to determine whether Tuesday’s results could be indicative of something else in 2020: whether rural Americans who previously backed Trump are less motivated to rally behind a president in an election where every small point could matter.