The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Governor’s races in three states test whether every election now is about Trump

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andy Beshear mingles with a crowd at a Louisville coffeehouse, where he started his statewide bus tour Wednesday. (Bruce Schreiner/AP)

ASHLAND, Ky. — As Andy Beshear campaigned through eastern Kentucky this weekend, the Democratic candidate for governor seemed well aware that he didn’t have much time to deliver his message before President Trump arrives here to attempt to suffocate it ahead of Tuesday’s election.

In speech after speech, in rural counties where Trump received as much as 80 percent of the vote just two years ago, Beshear delivered his closing message to voters in less than five minutes. He promised to expand health care, support teachers and public education, and stop the hard-edge, divisive politics that have consumed Kentucky and the nation over the past several years. He did not mention Trump or the impeachment inquiry targeting him.

“My gift to everyone at the end of this campaign is a much shorter speech,” Beshear quipped to supporters on Saturday after one especially abrupt address at a union hall here on the banks of the Ohio River.

But for Beshear and Jim Hood, the Democratic candidate for governor in Mississippi, such policy focus is being tested as Trump storms into these two Republican-friendly states and attempts to turn Tuesday’s governor’s election into a referendum on him and his possible impeachment at the hands of congressional Democrats.

In a brash, hour-long campaign speech Friday night, Trump railed against House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry when he appeared in Mississippi in support of Hood’s GOP opponent, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. Trump will campaign for Beshear’s Republican opponent, Gov. Matt Bevin, on Monday night, just hours before Kentucky voters go the polls.

In 2016, Trump carried Mississippi by about 17 points, while Kentucky voters handed him a 30-point victory. With Trump still relatively popular in both states, the White House says those two governor’s races, as well as a runoff election for governor in Louisiana on Nov. 16, will give the president a major political boost by proving that he can still mobilize religious conservatives and working-class voters to the polls, regardless of — or because of — the confrontation in Washington.

Democrats see the three governors’ races as an opportunity to prove that voters still want local leaders to prioritize issues of health and economic well-being in states that continue to rank among the poorest in the nation. Political strategists from both parties warn that the Democrats’ issue-centric strategy comes with risks as partisan polarization creeps deeper into voters’ everyday lives.

“There are not local races anymore,” said Brad Chism, a Mississippi Democratic strategist who has been advising Hood. “Every doctor’s office, every gas station, every barber shop has a TV in it, and eight out of ten of those in Mississippi are airing Fox News. . . . I am personally hopeful that local issues such as infrastructure, public education and transportation supersede this, but the thing about Trump is, he just sucks up all the oxygen, every day.”

In Kentucky, for much of the year Beshear was widely viewed as having the upper hand in his race against Bevin, who is seeking a second term in a state where Democrats still maintain a sizable advantage in party registration if not behavior. Bevin had been consistently ranked as the nation’s least popular governor after he got into high-profile disputes with schoolteachers and labor leaders.

But Republicans both here and in Washington say Bevin has made major inroads with voters by linking himself to Trump while speaking against impeachment.

Since late September, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced the impeachment investigation, Bevin’s internal numbers have steadily ticked upward, according to two Republican operatives familiar with the race. Now Bevin, who was down by double digits in his own polling shortly after his May primary, has pulled about even in his internal figures — a rise that operatives attribute to not only the inquiry but also to the launch of Bevin’s ad campaign against Beshear. (“Beshear opposes President Trump,” a recent ad warns. “His top supporters want to impeach our president.”)

One of the operatives, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal campaign polling, said the impeachment inquiry “being on the front page of every newspaper has certainly been a rallying cry for a lot of conservatives in the state.” Though national polling has indicated an electorate almost evenly divided on impeachment, 65 percent of voters in Kentucky say they oppose efforts to impeach Trump and remove him from the White House, according to a Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy survey.

“If the election had been two weeks ago, Beshear would’ve won by a decent margin,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), who had flirted with a primary challenge against Bevin. “The conventional wisdom is, with Donald Trump coming in, and the energy he brings, and the outrage the base has over the impeachment proceedings, I think that’s really going to put a lot of momentum behind Bevin at the right time.”

On Saturday in northern Kentucky, more than 100 supporters showed up to support Bevin and other statewide GOP candidates at an event in Vanceburg, a small industrial town wedged between the Ohio River and a set of railroad tracks. After a uniformed sheriff’s deputy opened the event with Christian prayer, Bevin said the election was in part a referendum on Trump’s impeachment.

“This is a slate of candidates that stands proudly with the president of the United States,” Bevin said, adding that “this whole impeachment charade is . . . an absolute racket put on by people whose knickers are in a twist that Hillary Clinton didn’t win . . . If you want to make their heads explode, elect every one of us” on the GOP ticket.

Kentucky Democrats, however, remain relatively upbeat that Beshear will prevail on Tuesday, despite Bevin’s efforts to nationalize the race. In an interview Saturday, Beshear accused Bevin of trying to “hide” behind Trump to mask his record as governor.

A Beshear campaign adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak freely, said their internal poll shows them with a consistent lead that is “growing” in the final days of the campaign because of a “double-digit advantage among those who are most excited about this election.”

Democratic strategists say Beshear’s path to victory relies heavily on boosting turnout in Louisville and Lexington, which is home to the University of Kentucky, while replicating the gains Democratic made nationwide last year in the suburbs, including outside Cincinnati.

But Beshear, who is backed by an army of teachers who strongly opposed Bevin’s efforts to change their pensions, also believes he can win back some working-class rural voters. Many of these voters still register as Democrats, even though they overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016.

Gypsy L. Cantrell-Ratliff, the president of a United Steelworkers Union affiliate in eastern Kentucky, estimated at least a third of her 1,100 members voted for Trump in 2016. She predicts nearly all of them will vote for Beshear this year after Bevin signed a law in 2017 overturning the state’s prevailing wage law.

“The union members in this state, I can guarantee you, have been and will be out in force,” said Cantrell-Ratliff, who lives in Pike County. “We are the boots on the ground, and I can promise you and Matt Bevin, we are after him.”

If Beshear loses, Cantrell-Ratliff said Trump would not have been the biggest factor in the race. Instead, she said Democrats in rural Kentucky continue to lose ground over the national party’s support for abortion rights and tougher gun laws.

On Saturday morning, Beshear spoke to a breakfast gathering sponsored by the Democratic Women’s Club in Pike County, located in the state’s eastern coal country. The room was packed with die-hard Democrats, but many acknowledged they are facing a far more dire political environment then they were a decade ago.

Beshear’s father, former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, carried Pike County with 71 percent of the vote when he ran for governor in 2007. Less than a decade later, Trump won 81 percent of the vote there.

Patsy Wagner, the president of the Pike County Democratic Women’s Club, noted the group’s membership has plunged from 400 members in 2012 to about 160 today.

“Beshear seems to be well-liked and people are looking for a change,” said Wagner, the group’s president. “But I just don’t know how it’s going to go, because there is just a lot of negative stories out there and people here used to be Democratic, but it’s just changing.”

The challenges facing Beshear and Hood are similar to the one facing Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D). Polls showed Edwards comfortably ahead before the state’s bipartisan “jungle” primary last month, but he failed to win an outright majority. Republicans made up 37 percent of the primary electorate, even though they account for only 30 percent of the state’s registered voters, said John M. Couvillon, founder of Baton Rouge-based JMC Analytics and Polling.

Edwards faces Republican businessman Eddie Rispone in a Nov. 16 runoff. Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) said he believed the daily drumbeat of news about the impeachment inquiry was damaging Edwards. Trump will travel to Monroe, La., on Wednesday to rally on behalf of Rispone.

“For the vast majority of Americans who are either center-left or center-right, I think about half are saying, ‘Give the guy a break,’ ” Kennedy said of Trump. “I think the other half are saying, ‘How in God’s name did we get here?’ And they’re paying attention.”

But both Couvillon, a Republican, and Chism, the Mississippi Democratic strategist, caution that Trump’s strategy of trying to nationalize the governors’ races could backfire.

Despite Trump’s broad popularity in both states, Couvillon and Chism say Trump’s involvement could increase turnout among black voters who traditionally vote Democratic.

There are also tens of thousands of voters in both states who lean Republican in federal races but are still considered up for grabs in state elections. Democrats are fighting hard for those voters by focusing on transportation, education and health care, including Medicaid expansion, Chism noted.

In Kentucky, Beshear is betting on a similar strategy. Instead of talking about Trump or national political issues, Beshear says, he’s keeping his message simple.

“When you talk about public education, pensions, health care and jobs, they are good for every Kentucky family, and I believe we are tired of being divided,” Beshear said.

It’s a message that has convinced Eddie Case, who is an unemployed, to stick with Beshear this year even though the Democrat doesn’t always agree with his national party.

“Trump isn’t as popular here as he used to be, and I believe Beshear cares,” Case said after attending a Beshear campaign event in Floyd County.

But at the Bevin campaign event in Vanceburg, other Democrats said they were voting for the GOP ticket this year. Betty Bloomfield, 62, rushed over to hear Bevin speak after her shift ended at the local McDonalds.

Bloomfield makes just $7.25 an hour, and strongly believes that state and national politicians need to create “more work and more jobs.” But she said Bevin has her vote because “it means a lot that he’s supported by President Trump.”

“I know Trump doesn’t think before he speaks, but that is just Trump being Trump,” said Bloomfield. “I just like his values.”