The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump tries to banish the specter of impeachment with red-state campaign tour

Attendees wait in line for the Trump rally in Tupelo, Miss., on Nov. 1, 2019. (Rory Doyle/The Washington Post)

TUPELO, Miss. — President Trump’s rescue mission Friday for a struggling Mississippi gubernatorial candidate may offer a clue to whether the impeachment inquiry against him will serve as a boost or drag for red-state Republicans who are seeking to rally supporters behind their criticism of Democrats’ effort to remove the president from office.

Trump won Mississippi with about 58 percent of the vote in 2016, and the state is considered far from in play for 2020. But as in Kentucky, where Trump will campaign Monday in another off-year election, a GOP loss at the state level on Tuesday would be seen as a hairline crack in the president’s popularity among Republicans.

Trump will also hold a rally in Louisiana on Wednesday, ahead of a runoff election there Nov. 16 that will determine who will be the state’s next governor.

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves remains in a tight contest with Democrat Jim Hood, according to the latest Mason-Dixon poll, released Oct. 23, despite spending more than twice as much as the longtime attorney general.

Reeves’s three-point advantage, within the poll’s margin of error, is a reason that Trump’s rally here will be followed Monday by a campaign visit from Vice President Pence. Donald Trump Jr., a frequent political surrogate for his father, appeared with Reeves in October and promised a crowd that the candidate “will fight for the MAGA agenda.”

Asked Friday whether the firepower suggests that national Republicans are worried about his performance, Reeves had a ready answer.

“I think what it suggests is that they understand how important this election is to the future of Mississippi and how important this election is to future of America,” Reeves told reporters outside the 10,000 seat BancorpSouth Arena.

“The national liberals don’t care about Mississippi, and the outcome of this race,” Reeves said. “What they do care about is throwing up a roadblock to President Trump getting reelected in 2020.”

Trump called Reeves the "next governor," and Hood, a "far-left Democrat."

"I can't believe this is a competitive race!" Trump exclaimed. "I'm talking Mississippi!"

Trump brought Reeves onstage partway into a speech that lasted well more than an hour. Reeves told the crowd he would be "an ally to President Donald J. Trump."

The few off-year elections this year come as Trump faces the likelihood of a vote in the majority-Democratic House to impeach him for alleged abuse of office. Impeachment would be a political stain, despite the likelihood that a Republican majority in the Senate would prevent Trump’s removal from office.

But Republicans are also hoping the impeachment process will rally the president’s supporters behind him in red states, and Trump rallygoer Brad Deckard said that is “absolutely” what is happening.

“I think the phone call [with Ukraine’s president] is inappropriate, but I don’t think it meets the level of impeachment,” said Deckard, who lives 90 miles away and across the state line in Memphis and so cannot vote in this election.

Another rallygoer, Mike McCullough, had no qualms about Trump's conduct.

“It sucks,” he said of the start of impeachment proceedings. “It’s a waste of time.”

The crowd booed on cue Friday when Trump decried the “deranged impeachment witch hunt.”

“This is one I never thought I’d be involved in,” Trump said, calling impeachment a “dirty word.”

“That’s why we’ve never had greater support than we have now; it’s the truth,” he said to loud cheers and applause.

Republicans, he said are “the most unified I’ve ever seen them.”

The latest on the impeachment inquiry into President Trump

Trump complained of the “Greatest Witch Hunt In American History” in a tweet Thursday, moments after the House passed a resolution largely along party lines that lays out parameters for the next phase of the impeachment inquiry.

Trump lost no Republican votes in Thursday’s procedural exercise, despite the discomfort of some GOP lawmakers over the president’s conduct and his attacks on government employees who have testified against him.

Trump’s overall approval rating among Republicans remains high — between 85 and 90 percent in most polls — and preserving that standing is key to his firewall of congressional Republican support.

A new poll from the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research contained mixed news for Trump. Despite an 85 percent approval rating among Republicans, 33 percent of Republicans said Trump doesn’t make them feel “proud,” and 41 percent of Republicans said Trump doesn’t make them feel “excited.”

The poll released Thursday found that 61 percent of Americans, including 26 percent of Republicans, say Trump has little to no respect for the country’s democratic institutions and traditions. That is an issue at the heart of the impeachment inquiry into whether Trump improperly pressured the leader of Ukraine for political favors.

Impeachment aside, Trump has good reasons for campaigning for Republicans in Louisiana, Kentucky and Mississippi this year, said GOP strategist John Feehery.

“What the president is trying to do is remake the party in his own image” and build loyalty deep into state party operations, Feehery said. “If you can help somebody out who is in a little bit of trouble and they win, then they owe you.”

Feehery said problems specific to the candidates and races this year are chiefly to blame for Republican struggles, and he sees little direct connection to Trump’s future. Still, Trump can help himself by putting points on the board in far-flung races, according to Feehery.

“Plus, he gets lots of energy from going to these rallies, and there is no better home team kind of advantage than going to Mississippi and Kentucky,” he said.

In Kentucky, as in the other states holding gubernatorial elections this month, Republicans have latched their campaigns to the president. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) is trying to use the impeachment issue as a rallying cry for rural, mostly white support.

Days after the impeachment inquiry began, Bevin held a news conference outside the governor’s mansion, demanding that his challenger Andy Beshear, the state’s attorney general, answer the “yes or no question” of whether he’d support removing Trump from office.

In Kentucky, a governor’s Trumpian personality is on the ballot

In campaign stops and debates since then, Beshear has punted on the question, dismissing it as a distraction tactic employed by an unpopular incumbent.

“Listen, I’m the state’s top prosecutor,” Beshear told reporters after one debate. “I could only support impeachment if I saw evidence, [but] all I’ve done is read stories. What I can say is that any proceeding moving forward has to be fair, it has to be impartial, and it can’t be about scoring political points.”

In Louisiana, which votes nine days after Kentucky and Mississippi, Republican Eddie Rispone has pitched himself as a local version of Trump — a businessman and donor who has never held public office. On Wednesday, in his sole debate against Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, Rispone began his first statement with a defense of the president.

“We have a Democratic Party that’s going after impeachment,” Rispone said.

Edwards, who has evaded the impeachment saga and emphasized his ability to work with Trump, was ready for that.

“You’re always looking to Washington, D.C.,” Edwards said. “There’s not much inspiration to be had there.”

In Mississippi, Reeves has invoked impeachment as he campaigns to succeed Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who is term-limited.

At a political gathering in Oxford, Miss., last week, Reeves compared Hood’s investigations as attorney general to those that have bedeviled Trump.

“Jim Hood has done things that would embarrass even Jim Comey and Hillary Clinton,” Reeves said.

And in a new ad running throughout the state, Reeves has linked Hood to the impeachment effort by reminding voters that he frequently refused to join other states in lawsuits against the Obama administration.

“Liberals are impeaching Trump,” the ad’s narrators warns. “Do you stand with our president and Tate Reeves or with the liberals and Jim Hood? Mississippi, it’s time to choose.”

Democrats have never been weaker in the state, reduced to a super-minority in the legislature and losing power in rural counties with every election this century. Hood campaigned as an easygoing moderate who loves a good dove hunt, and he has mostly shrugged off Reeves’s efforts to paint him as a radical.

“He’s a liberal Democrat, he has been for 16 years, he continues to be, and that’s okay,” Reeves told The Washington Post in September. “There are some people in Mississippi that are looking for a liberal Democrat to represent them in the governor’s office. But if you are a conservative, I think that you only have one option.”

At the time, Hood joked that Reeves was limping so badly that “I don’t know if the pope could help him.”

Gus Carrington contributed to this report.