The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Back-to-back losses in key governors’ races send additional warning to Trump and GOP ahead of 2020

President Trump held a rally in Louisiana on Nov. 14 to promote Eddie Rispone, Republican candidate for governor. He lost to Gov. John Bel Edwards. (Video: The Washington Post)
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When Kentucky’s Republican governor lost his bid for reelection two weeks ago despite President Trump’s active endorsement, the president and his allies brushed it off by declaring that Trump had nearly dragged an unpopular incumbent across the finish line.

On Sunday, a day after another Trump-backed GOP gubernatorial candidate fell in Louisiana, the president and his surrogates barely mounted a defense.

In a barrage of 40 tweets and retweets by Sunday evening, Trump didn’t mention Eddie Rispone’s loss to Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), even though the president had held two campaign rallies in the state in the 10 days before the election aimed at boosting his chances.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel — who had publicly praised Trump after the Kentucky elections in which the GOP won five other statewide races — also was mum on Louisiana.

On Fox News Sunday, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) couldn’t avoid weighing in after host Chris Wallace asked him whether the loss made Trump look bad.

“What he said was he’d be made to look bad whether he came in the state or not,” Scalise responded, before crediting Trump with helping Rispone, a businessman, force a runoff election with Edwards after holding a rally in the state on the eve of the bipartisan primary last month.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards wins reelection

For Trump, however, the back-to-back losses of GOP gubernatorial candidates in red Southern states is more than just a bad look. It’s a warning sign that the president’s strategy of focusing strictly on maintaining the strong support of his conservative base might not be enough to help fellow Republicans or even himself in 2020 amid the House Democrats’ impeachment probe, which has imperiled his presidency.

Trump campaigned hard for Rispone and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R), who lost to Democrat Andy Beshear, turning their races into something of a referendum on his own standing as he seeks to demonstrate strength amid a near-daily onslaught of disclosures that he sought to leverage the U.S. bilateral relationship with Ukraine for his own political gain.

“What Trump did in Louisiana was increase voter participation. While he increased the pro-Trump turnout, he also increased the anti-Trump turnout. That’s kind of the lesson here,” said Ron Faucheux, a nonpartisan political polling analyst based in New Orleans.

Democrats are dominating state-level races

Faucheux acknowledged that Trump helped Rispone in the primary, but he emphasized that the candidate who had tightly embraced the president ultimately had little else to sell to voters than that relationship — a similar dynamic faced by Bevin.

In Louisiana, state GOP leaders had pleaded with the president to personally get involved in the race, and Trump held a rally with Rispone in Bossier City on Thursday during which the president cast the contest in personal terms.

Referring to Bevin’s loss in Kentucky, Trump complained that the media pinned the defeat on him.

“So you’ve got to give me a big win, please,” he told the crowd.

“It’s one thing to endorse somebody and to help give them your support base,” Faucheux said. “It’s something different to hover over and take over the whole campaign. When that happens, voters begin to ask, ‘Who is this guy Rispone and why can’t he stand on his own two feet?’ ”

Trump has cast a long shadow over the GOP, and his job approval ratings, which have hovered in the low 40s, have made it more difficult for Republicans. The party was routed in the 2018 midterm elections as Democrats regained control of the House for the first time since 2010. The GOP has been bleeding support in the suburbs, where Trump’s conduct has made him and the Republican brand increasingly unpopular.

Democrats extend their dominance of the suburbs, with an eye to 2020

The losses from last year have continued in some crucial elections this month, including in Virginia where Democrats gained control of the state legislature for the first time in a generation.

On top of those defeats, Republicans are facing a wave of retirements in Congress, as once-safe incumbents see a shaky political landscape in 2020 that will be a referendum on the president. Polls have shown that a majority of the public supports the House Democrats’ impeachment probe, though a smaller percentage backs a measure to formally recommend removing Trump from office.

Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) last month became the 19th member of his party in the House to announce that he would not seek reelection next year, the sixth in a swing district. So far, five House Democrats have said they will retire.

“Where’s the good news for Republicans?” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a liberal think tank. “In 2018 and 2019, Trump had two worst-case or near-worst elections in a row; his numbers today are below where they were on Election Day 2018; incumbents are retiring in droves, making 2020 even more challenging; and Trump’s not just trailing 2020 Democrats nationally by a significant margin — he’s not clearly ahead in any important battleground state.”

Trump campaign officials have said that with the 2019 cycle behind him, the president will now focus his attention on his own fortunes in battleground states and they have boasted of his huge advantages over the Democratic field in fundraising and organizing.

Despite the losses in Kentucky and Louisiana, Trump remains popular in the South, and he has taken credit for helping in the Mississippi governor’s race where Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R), with whom Trump appeared at a campaign rally, defeated state Attorney General Jim Hood this month.

“The gubernatorial results in 2019 in Kentucky and Louisiana are in no way a referendum on President Trump or a foreshadowing of the 2020 presidential election,” RNC spokesman Steve Guest said on Sunday. “The Democrats who ran for governor in those red states aren’t anything like the far left candidates running against President Trump.”