When there are a handful of off-year state elections, the pundits always rush to claim that there are enormous implications for whoever occupies the White House.
And I usually write a piece saying this is wildly overstated because, in essence, all politics is local.
Well, I can’t really make that case today. All politics is national, or becoming nationalized, in the Trump era, fueled in part by social media.
With the apparent defeat of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in Kentucky, we don’t have to look far for someone who would blame it on the president.
“If you win,” Trump said of Bevin at a Lexington rally on Monday night, “they are going to make it like, ho hum. And if you lose, they are going to say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. You can’t let that happen to me!”
Well, they did. Obviously, Trump delivered that last line tongue-in-cheek, anticipating the media reaction. But by his very presence, he was putting his prestige on the line.
It’s more than just the rally. Bevin had tied himself to Trump, speaking out about impeachment and clearly trying to make the election about more than just Kentucky issues. The president consulted with him by phone.
Democrat Andy Beshear wound up beating the incumbent by about 5,000 votes, and while Bevin hasn’t conceded, it will be very difficult for him to overturn the vote in a state with no automatic recount.
For the prognosticators, Kentucky is a bellwether because Trump won the state by 30 points in the presidential race.
Politico says the outcome “could represent an embarrassing moment for the president, who touted his strong record in rallies held the night before elections and predicted that the media would blame him if Bevin lost.”
A Washington Post headline said “Kentucky Outcome Embarrasses Trump, Worries Many Republicans Ahead of 2020.”
Except that Robert Costa’s story doesn’t say that. He writes that the vote “left Republicans stumbling and increasingly uncertain about their own political fates next year tied to an embattled and unpopular president.” Costa also reported, fairly, that many Trump allies tried to explain away Bevin’s poor performance as an “anomaly.”
The president, as you might expect, offered his own postgame spin:
“Won 5 out of 6 elections in Kentucky, including 5 great candidates that I spoke for and introduced last night,” he tweeted. “@MattBevin picked up at least 15 points in last days, but perhaps not enough (Fake News will blame Trump!).”
He’s right about the blame game, but there’s no evidence that Bevin gained 15 points; in fact, he was trailing Beshear, the son of a former governor, for much of the campaign.
Trump campaign chief Brad Parscale said “the president just about dragged Gov. Matt Bevin across the finish line, helping him run stronger than expected.” That might be true, but a loss is still a loss.
But that didn’t stop Joe Scarborough, the ex-Republican congressman, from taunting Trump on the air:
“Donald, my friend, you lost the state for Republicans…It’s the reverse Midas touch.”
But the old all-politics-is-local refrain, popularized by Tip O’Neill, is still a factor. Bevin’s abrasive personality made him an unusually unpopular governor. He said he infected his nine children with chickenpox rather than having them vaccinated. He was moving to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients, which Beshear vowed to overturn.
What might be more significant is Virginia’s legislature going all Democratic for the first time in a quarter-century. The commonwealth has basically morphed from a purple state into a solidly blue one.
It would be a mistake to read too much into a gubernatorial victory by less than half a percentage point. On the same day, a Republican former aide to Mitch McConnell was elected as Kentucky’s first black attorney general. But the media were primed to interpret Nov. 5 as a sign of Trump’s political weakness, and Matt Bevin gave them the ammo they needed.
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