It might be nice for many observers to think that Matt Bevin apparently lost the Kentucky governor’s mansion because of President Trump. But assuming the results hold, it wasn’t the president who did Mr. Bevin in — he took proper care of that himself.
But for those looking ahead to what this might mean for Election Day in 2020, Mr. Bevin’s showing does signal major problems for other Republicans — namely, certain senators who are in the thick of tough re-election battles, and therefore Republican control of the Senate.
It also hints at Mr. Trump’s impotence when it comes to dragging weak performers across the finish line. Republican senators were reportedly “paying close attention” to Kentucky. They were watching “President Trump’s political capital as they make decisions about how to handle impeachment and their own future.”
Mr. Bevin’s loss can be attributed above all to his dreadful approval ratings. At a meager 34 percent approval, he had the lowest rating of any governor in the country — yet in its final survey before the election, the best pollster in the field, Mason-Dixon, still called the race a tie.
On the eve of the election, President Trump descended on Kentucky for a pro-Bevin rally. Between the available public polling and the Trump campaign’s own data coming out of that rally, the rally should have pushed Mr. Bevin to re-election. But it didn’t.
And that is a huge problem for Jodi Ernst, Cory Gardner — and yes, perhaps even Mitch McConnell. These senators enter re-election campaigns struggling with poor approval numbers, according to Morning Consult. At 37 percent, just a notch above Mr. Bevin’s, Mr. McConnell’s are actually the most worrying. And a shocking 50 percent disapprove of the job he’s doing.
If those numbers move even slightly more into the negative, Mr. McConnell could wind up with a real battle on his hands. Is he still favored? Definitely. He will raise a ton of money, and at the moment, he does not appear to have drawn a strong Democratic opponent.
But this in itself, combined with poor numbers for the others, is a problem. Any diversion of money for Mr. McConnell’s race could result in a smaller campaign chest for these other races, and the approval-disapproval ratings for them are not encouraging.
In Iowa, Joni Ernst holds a mere 39 percent approval rating against a 43 percent disapproval rating. With the pain exacted on farm country thanks to President Trump’s trade wars and Democratic voters super-motivated to stick it to anyone with an R after their name (which they did in 2018 in Iowa, flipping two Republican congressional seats to Democrats and getting close in a third), it seems unlikely that life will get dramatically better for her between now and Election Day. She’s not the only Republican Iowa senator in the doldrums: Chuck Grassley is operating with mediocre approval and high disapproval numbers.
Since Iowa is looking like a 2020 swing state, Mr. Trump will probably hold many rallies there, trying to drive up support for himself and for Ms. Ernst. But the Bevin example shows that unless Ms. Ernst gets her numbers up on her own and relatively soon, she could be in trouble. She may be able to save herself; Mr. Trump, it appears, cannot.
The same is true, albeit to a less dire degree, for Cory Gardner in Colorado. He is underwater, with a 36 percent approval rating against a 39 percent disapproval rating. In addition to those uninspiring numbers, he will almost certainly face stiff competition, most likely drawing a strong opponent in the former governor John Hickenlooper. That it’s a presidential year will also not play to his favor — Colorado hasn’t voted for the Republican nominee for president since 2004.
This is also true for Susan Collins — only Mr. McConnell possesses a more troublesome disapproval number. It appears that the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was a real, and lasting, problem for her. And as with Iowa in 2018, in the shadow of Mr. Trump, the state shifted away from Republicans, tossing Representative Bruce Poliquin in favor of a Democrat and flipping the governorship from red to blue.
Ms. Collins didn’t vote for Trump; she wrote in Paul Ryan. That suggests there’s zero chance she’ll want Mr. Trump rallying for her, but also that there’s zero chance that the president will be minded to rally his base to save her. That’s just as well. She has survived before in extremely tough years for Republicans — namely 2008 — and Kentucky showed he just isn’t the closer he makes out to be.
All of this is occurring, of course, against the background — and moving target — of impeachment and the 2020 Democratic nominating contest. Mr. Trump’s approval numbers are better than those of Senators McConnell, Ernst and Gardner, but remarkably, he’s never hit — or even really approached — 50 percent. About 48 percent, and more respondents than not, support impeaching removing him from office at this point.
If his approval numbers inch down and support for impeachment and removal grows, the outlook for these Republican senators — and others — might become even more bleak. And they may start considering options to buy a reprieve that would be helpful to their re-election chances but harmful to the president: If they are so inclined, they might give more private thought of voting to remove Mr. Trump from office. Or they might be more open to a symbolic vote to convict and remove, knowing not enough other Republican senators would follow. Either one of those scenarios hurts Mr. Trump’s political fortunes by lending legitimacy to the impeachment process.
The lesson to be taken by the Republican Party from the Bevin debacle is that senators and others need to work on their own images and reputations to seal the deal with voters — and apart from Mr. Trump and his popularity with his base, which might not be transferable. He couldn’t elevate Mr. Bevin, and his own data as well as public polling indicated that he should have. He’s not going to be the savior of Senators McConnell, Ernst, Gardner or Collins, either — and all of them should be planning accordingly.
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