Democrats won control of both houses of the Virginia legislature for the first time in a generation on Tuesday and claimed a narrow victory in the governor’s race in deep-red Kentucky, as Republicans struggled to overcome President Trump’s growing unpopularity in suburbs of both statesthey once controlled.
In capturing the legislature in Virginia, Democrats now have full control of the state government. That clears the way for Gov. Ralph S. Northam, who was nearly driven from office earlier this year, to pass measures tightening access to guns and raising the minimum wage that have been stymied by legislative Republicans.
In Kentucky, the race for governor between the Republican incumbent, Matt Bevin, and the Democratic challenger, Attorney General Andy Beshear, was too close to call.
Mr. Beshear captured 49.2 percent of the vote while Mr. Bevin won 48.9 percent and was leading by about 4,500 votes, The Associated Press reported. The governor, however, did not concede, asserting to supporters that “there have been more than a few irregularities,” without offering specifics.
Mr. Beshear, though, claimed victory and said that he expected Mr. Bevin “will honor the election that was held tonight.”
A governor’s race in Mississippi was also drawing national attention Tuesday.
The contest in Kentucky was the most prominent on a day of state and local elections that illustrated the country’s growing polarization, as red-state Republicans sought to frame their campaigns as a test of loyalty to Mr. Trump while Democrats in more liberal states tied their opponents to a president loathed in blue America.
Coming one year before the presidential election, the races reflected the country’s increasingly contentious politics and the widening rural-urban divide.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in Kentucky, where Mr. Beshear ran far better than national Democrats in the state’s lightly-populated counties but gained a lead thanks in large part to his overwhelming strength in the state’s cities and suburbs.
Mr. Beshear’s strong performance demonstrated that Mr. Trump’s popularity alone is insufficient for Republicans, even in one of the most conservative regions in the country. Mr. Bevin and national G.O.P. groups, grasping for ways to overcome Mr. Bevins’s deep unpopularity, sought to turn the election into a referendum on Mr. Trump, national policy issues and the Democratic impeachment inquiry.
And the president himself stood alongside Mr. Bevin Monday night in Lexington to argue that, while the combative governor is “a pain in the ass,” his defeat would send “a really bad message” beyond Kentucky’s borders.
But three years after handing the president a 30-point victory, Kentucky’s voters appeared to put their displeasure with the conservative Mr. Bevin, his controversial policies and even more controversial personality, over their partisan leanings and support for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Beshear, a 41-year-old moderate whose father preceded Mr. Bevin in the governor’s mansion, sidestepped questions about Mr. Trump and impeachment while keeping his distance from national Democrats. He focused squarely on Mr. Bevin’s efforts to cut health care and overhaul the state’s pension program while drawing attention to the governor’s string of incendiary remarks, including one that suggested striking teachers had left children vulnerable to molestation.
Yet even as he sought to steer a middle path, Mr. Beshear benefited from liberal enthusiasm and from antipathy toward Mr. Trump, running up wide margins in the state’s two largest cities, Louisville and Lexington.
In an interview near the end of the race, Mr. Bevin claimed the race was not even competitive and predicted he’d prevail by “6 to 10 percent.”
But even as the governor was struggling, every other statewide Republican candidate appeared to be on the way to victory, a sign that Kentucky voters were rejecting Mr. Bevin and not his party.
In a characteristically truculent Twitter thread on Tuesday as voting was underway, Mr. Bevin snapped at the “historically challenged national media” for being surprised at the competitiveness of the Kentucky race, pointing out that only four Republicans had been elected governor since the 1920s and that registered Democrats in the state still outnumbered registered Republicans. He did not mention that this partisan registration gap has considerably shrunk in recent years, nor that Mr. Trump romped there three years ago.
The Republican nominees for governor in Kentucky and Mississippi, and in Louisiana, which will vote on Nov. 16, had linked themselves to Mr. Trump at every turn, joining him for rallies in their states and assailing their Democratic rivals for their party’s effort to impeach the president.
While Mr. Trump was embraced by Republicans, the Democratic standard-bearers in the three contests shunned their more liberal presidential contenders and refused to support the impeachment inquiry, not wanting to fuel the G.O.P.’s strategy of making the red-state races a referendum on the president.
In Virginia, the only Southern state Mr. Trump lost, it was Republicans who were distancing themselves from their national party and a president who has alienated the suburban voters they needed to retain control of the state legislature. While the president stayed away from Virginia, despite its proximity to the White House, every major Democratic presidential hopeful was welcomed with open arms to campaign with the party’s candidates in a state that has not elected a statewide Republican in a decade.
In all four states, television commercials and campaign mailers were filled with mentions of Mr. Trump (positively and negatively) as well as of national Democratic leaders such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Bernie Sanders and the so-called Squad of freshman House Democrats (negatively). And the same hot-button issues that have consumed a gridlocked Washington in recent years have also played a central role in races that in the past would have been dominated by talk of taxes, transportation spending and education.
In the three conservative states, the Republicans targeted the Democrats with ads portraying them as soft on illegal immigration; in Virginia the Democrats accused the Republicans of opposing gun control because of their fealty to the National Rifle Association.
Predictably, it was the Democrats in the red states and Republicans in increasingly blue Virginia who gamely sought to localize the races. Mr. Beshear and Mr. Hood hammered their Republican opponents on their records and issues unique to Kentucky and Mississippi while casting themselves as pragmatists with little allegiance to their national party. Suburban Virginia Republicans focused on their dedication to constituent service, including filling potholes, and trumpeted their willingness to break from party orthodoxy on some issues.
It was a familiar approach, but one that has grown increasingly difficult in a period of nationalized politics, where voters take their news from national outlets and social media and judge candidates up and down the ballot more on their partisan affiliation than their individual attributes.
This trend toward tribalism is what fueled a sort of bifurcated midterm last year, in which Democrats swept to control of the House by claiming anti-Trump voters in suburbia while Republicans added to their Senate majority by picking up seats in red states. And it is why this year offered just a fleeting preview of the scorched earth campaign to come next year, when Mr. Trump is expected to try to further polarize the electorate in hopes of another Electoral College victory.
In Kentucky, Mr. Bevins’s inflammatory conduct — he once portrayed striking teachers as accessories to the sexual assault of children — appeared to have persuaded some voters, from both parties, to vote for Mr. Beshear. John Brown, who has worked in heating and air-conditioning for more than 30 years, said that he has wavered between parties over the years. This time, he voted for Mr. Beshear. “I watch the news, and that’s how I vote,” he said.
“He has poor manners,” Mr. Brown, 62, said, adding that he does not care for his hotheaded temperament, which was apparent when Mr. Bevins spoke. “You can tell his blood pressure is rising.”
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