Tuesday's Elections Show Impeachment Might Not Boost GOP As Much As It Hoped

Nov 6, 2019
Originally published on November 6, 2019 7:50 pm

Tuesday's statewide elections in Kentucky and Virginia were a big night for Democrats. And the results tell us a few things about national politics, consequential issues and President Trump.

In Kentucky, Democrat Andy Beshear, the son of former Gov. Steve Beshear, claimed victory Tuesday night and narrowly leads incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin by about 5,000 votes. Bevin has not yet conceded the race.

In Virginia, Democrats took over both chambers of the state legislature and now have full control of the state's political apparatus, a sweeping change from a decade ago when Virginia was considered the nation's bellwether.

Republicans kept hold of the governorship in Mississippi, but the margin — 5 percentage points — was far smaller than Trump's 18 points in 2016.

Here are seven lessons from Tuesday night's results:

1. Impeachment did not help Republicans fire up conservatives in rural areas

Republicans have been saying that impeachment would backfire on Democrats and enthuse Trump's rural base. But that didn't pan out Tuesday in Kentucky and Virginia. Democratic voters in urban areas, on the other hand, are clearly fired up.

They showed up, especially in Kentucky, in higher-than-usual numbers, while voters in rural areas didn't. Trump, who only won 46% of the national popular vote in 2016, needs every last one of the people who voted for him then to come out again, especially as he has done almost nothing to try to win over persuadable voters this time around. Kentucky and Virginia could be warning signs that impeachment, even though the Trump campaign has raised lots of money off it, simply isn't the issue Republicans hoped it would be with voters.

2. Trump won't like this

"You can't let that happen to me!" Trump said at his Kentucky rally Monday night, imploring Kentucky voters to go to the polls for Bevin. He did not want the the narrative to be: "Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world."

Well, it wasn't the greatest defeat in the history of the world. But it is bad news for Trump, despite his campaign dismissing the loss as the result of problems with Bevin's campaign. So what will the results mean for his mood and state of mind, as congressional investigators keep asking questions in their impeachment inquiry?

3. The suburbs remain a warning sign for Republicans

Republicans want to dismiss the results in Kentucky as Bevin being unpopular and acerbic, and that is a point to consider, especially considering that Republican candidates swept all of the other statewide races, mostly by double-digit margins. But Bevin's unpopularity does not explain the results in Virginia.

The fact is what we've seen in election after election since Trump has been in office is Democrats outperforming prior performances — and that strength has been rooted in the suburbs. Remember, Republicans lost the House in 2018 because suburban voters turned on Trump and the GOP — and Republicans haven't fixed that problem.

4. Governing still matters

Kentucky is a state Trump won by 30 points. So this should have been a layup for any generic Republican candidate. But Bevin is no generic Republican. He picked fights with all kinds of constituencies in the state.

We've seen it time and again — take Kansas, for example — that when a governor governs ideologically, they wind up in political trouble. And the opposite is true, too. The three most popular governors in the country are Republicans in liberal states: Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Larry Hogan in Maryland and Phil Scott in Vermont. That should be a lesson that the GOP pays attention to.

5. Kentucky likely does not mean much for Mitch McConnell's and Trump's chances in the state in 2020

Sure, Bevin was unpopular, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unpopular in his home state, too. And, yes, Trump was not quite able to drag Bevin across the finish line Tuesday night.

But that does not mean either Trump or McConnell is in trouble in Kentucky next year. Over the past decade, McConnell has often been among the least popular senators with his constituents and yet has comfortably won reelection each time. He and Bevin have different brands in the state, and a McConnell protégé won handily for attorney general.

What's more, having Trump on the ballot will help McConnell. It's important to remember that while turnout was up substantially from the last governor's race in 2015, it was still down about 35% from the presidential election. Expect those numbers to shoot back up in 2020.

6. Virginia is now officially a blue state

My, how times change and can change quickly. The results Tuesday night in Virginia mean Democrats in the state now control the legislature and every statewide elected office — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Virginia has outpaced the rest of the country, is no longer a swing state and is moving to being reliably Democratic. And that shift came in a year when the top trio of elected Democrats in the state faced a variety of scandals that hobbled their ability to campaign for down-ballot candidates.

7. The politics of health care and guns may be moving left

Before Bevin came into office, Kentucky had one of the best-run Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) exchanges in the country. It also expanded Medicaid under Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat.

Bevin took a very different approach. He tried to institute work requirements for Medicaid, which would have resulted in tens of thousands of Kentuckians losing health insurance. That was hotly divisive, and his loss Tuesday proves that once you give people the benefit, it is very difficult to take it away.

That has long been the argument Democrats have made in favor of the Affordable Care Act even when it was unpopular. And guess what? As predicted, it has grown more popular, and without an alternative, Republicans have struggled to figure out what to do about it.

In Virginia, guns were a top issue after a raft of mass shootings nationally and in the state. Gun-control groups outspent the National Rifle Association by about $500,000, and Tuesday's Virginia results showed that with a concerted effort, lots of money and focused activism, the tide could be turning on gun policy.

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Democrats had a very good night last night in the handful of states holding big off-year elections. In Virginia, Democrats won total control of the legislature. In Kentucky, a state President Trump had won by 30 points, a Democrat declared victory with a slim lead in the governor's race. But the Republican incumbent is asking the state to re-examine the results.

So what does all of this mean for next year's big election? Well, to answer that question, we're joined now by NPR's senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.


CHANG: So I want to start with Kentucky. Republican Governor Matt Bevin had campaigned with President Trump at this huge rally on Monday night. But then on Tuesday, he ends up trailing Democrat Andy Beshear. What do you think? Is this, like, some warning sign for President Trump?

MONTANARO: To an extent, yes. I mean, Trump is certainly expected to do well in Kentucky again next year. He won it by 30 points in 2016. But, you know, there is a little bit of a warning here for Trump because he did go to the state, and he said that he doesn't want the media to say that Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. He said, you can't let that happen to me, he told Kentuckians at a rally.

You know, look; it certainly wasn't the greatest defeat in the history of the world, but it was a bad night for Republicans. And particularly, I'm looking at the impeachment inquiry. You know, Republicans promised that the impeachment inquiry was going to backfire on Democrats, going to fire up rural Republicans. But that hasn't happened, and that didn't happen last night in Kentucky or Virginia.

CHANG: But what I'm wondering about is how what happened last night in Kentucky plays into what otherwise seems to be a really tribal time in politics right now. Like, you're either on the red team, or you're on the blue team. How does Kentucky fit into all of that?

MONTANARO: Well, look; Matt Bevin was a very unpopular governor, the most unpopular governor according to a Morning Consult approval poll. But what I think it really means is that governing still matters. You know, he picked a lot of fights. He governed ideologically. And whenever that's happened across the country - look at Kansas, for example, and Sam Brownback. He wound up losing. A Democrat wound up being put in there.

You can have somebody be a governor of a state who's from a different party as long as they govern like a technocrat, as long as they focus on the things that matter in people's lives. Right now, if you were to look at the top three most popular governors in the country, all of them are Republicans, and they're all in liberal states.

CHANG: Oh, interesting.


CHANG: I want to turn to Virginia now. Democrats now hold total control of the state government there - the governor's office, both chambers of the state legislature. But the state has been trending towards Democrats for a long time, right? So how significant were last night's results?

MONTANARO: Well, it's really interesting because I think now you can officially say that Virginia is a blue state, which is really remarkable considering a decade ago, we were saying that as goes Virginia, so goes the country. And what a shift that's been.

CHANG: Yeah. So what was the driving issue in last night's election?

MONTANARO: Well, I think the big thing here was guns. I mean, it was the top issue on everyone's mind, on voters' minds. And, you know, after mass shootings within the state and mass shootings nationwide, gun control groups really made a push here. And I think it shows that with a concerted effort and with money - gun control groups outspent the NRA by half a million dollars. That money was spent to knock on doors, get out the vote. And I think it shows that the gun politics in the country may be changing a bit. And if that is replicated in other states, you could see some political change.

CHANG: OK. Well, then looking ahead to 2020, what lessons can we take from last night's results you think?

MONTANARO: I mean, clearly there's still a warning for Republicans when it comes to the suburbs. The suburban voters are the ones who put Democrats over the top in 2018, and they continue in race after race to back Democrats, show up in big numbers. And Republicans can't dismiss that and say that every single one of these races in places where Democrats overperformed on the backs of suburban voters should be dismissed and not matter at all.

And I also think that Democratic moderates have done particularly well in this election. They did particularly well in 2018, and that should be something that Democratic presidential candidates look at for how they can win as a roadmap in 2020.

CHANG: Keep an eye on the moderates.

MONTANARO: Absolutely.

CHANG: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

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