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Politics

Trump swoops into governors’ races in Kentucky and elsewhere to test his political strength

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin talks with President Trump at the White House in 2018.
President Trump and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin in January 2018 at a White House roundtable on prison reform.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

As Republicans worry the House impeachment inquiry could damage their party’s election prospects, President Trump is taking a bold risk to prove them wrong: He is swooping into three 2019 governors’ races to show he is still a political asset.

The biggest gamble is in Kentucky, where Trump has endorsed one of the most unpopular governors in America: Republican Matt Bevin, who is at risk of losing his bid for a second term.

Trump is appearing at an election-eve rally for Bevin in Lexington on Monday. A Bevin victory could give the president bragging rights at a time when his own reelection prospects are shadowed by damaging revelations and growing GOP anxiety over Trump’s foreign policy and impeachment strategy.

If Bevin loses Tuesday despite his strong links to Trump, it will mostly be because of a uniquely abrasive style and penchant for controversy. But it will also be seen as a sign that the president is losing political juice even in a state he won by nearly 30 points in 2016.

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Kentucky is one of several states holding off-year elections this month that could be the first electoral test of how impeachment politics are playing for the president and candidates of both parties.

In Virginia, Democrats are working to win control of the state Senate and House of Delegates, which are narrowly held by Republicans. The outcome of Tuesday’s election will determine which party has the upper hand in the decennial drawing of district lines after the 2020 census.

Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as Kentucky, are holding three of the most competitive gubernatorial elections this year. They are all states that Trump won by wide margins in 2016, but where Democrats are running surprisingly strong races.

In Mississippi, which is picking GOP Gov. Phil Bryant’s successor on Tuesday, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is favored to win but has been weakened by a divisive primary. He faces a popular Democrat, Atty. Gen. Jim Hood, who has won four statewide races by double-digit margins.

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In Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, is facing a strong GOP challenger in a Nov. 16 runoff election. Edwards was forced into the runoff when he failed to win more than 50% in an all-party primary in October — after Trump weighed in with a barrage of Twitter attacks.

In Kentucky, Bevin is running for a second term against Atty. Gen. Andy Beshear, son of former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. A Mason-Dixon poll in October found the race in a dead heat, 46 to 46, much tighter than the 48-40 edge Beshear enjoyed in December 2018.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have committed to campaign for all three Republicans in the gubernatorial races, aiming for an unprecedented trifecta: Although all three are in GOP-leaning states, the party has never won those states at the same time.

Each race is shaped by local personalities and issues, but both parties will be watching for the effects of the national impeachment drama that saturates the airwaves. Democrats are hoping that turnout will be high among voters motivated by anti-Trump sentiment. Republicans believe that anger over the impeachment inquiry will motivate the party’s base.

“Momentum is on our side because of some of the things happening at the national level: impeachment and the race to the left among Democrats’ 2020 candidates,” said Amelia Chassé Alcivar, spokeswoman for the Republican Governors Assn. “The national dynamics are really causing voters in a state like Kentucky to wonder whether the Democratic Party represents their values.”

David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, notes that Trump’s direct engagement is no silver bullet for struggling GOP candidates. In 2018, the president held late-campaign rallies for Senate candidates in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio, to no avail.

“The myth that Trump parachutes into these states and dramatically changes the composition of the electorate or the feelings of voters toward the Republican Party has not been borne out,” Bergstein said.

Scott Jennings, a Republican political consultant in Kentucky, acknowledged the political risk Trump faces if any of the three candidates lose, but he said the president would probably be blamed for their losses even if he did not campaign.

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“It’s a risk well worth taking for Trump,” Jennings said. “If they end up winning all three, that will be a powerful message that voters aren’t into impeachment as much as folks in urban areas and the Washington Beltway.”

The president’s standing looms largest in Kentucky because Trump has invested so much in Bevin’s success. He delivered a made-for-television moment for the governor in March when, as Bevin was discussing an economic development plan before a phalanx of reporters, Trump called his cellphone; Bevin put the president on speakerphone. Bevin was at the president’s side when Trump signed a criminal justice bill. Trump endorsed Bevin via Twitter and in phone messages before a contested GOP primary.

Pence campaigned for Bevin last week on a bus tour through Kentucky. And in a Monday morning tweet, Trump hyped the Lexington rally, calling the governor a “fantastic guy.”

As impeachment gathers steam, Bevin and his supporters have been goading Beshear for not taking a clear position on the House impeachment inquiry.

“Days before the election and Andy Beshear still refuses to share if he agrees with 95% of congressional members of his own party who want to impeach President Trump, or if he agrees with 65% of Kentuckians that President Trump should not be impeached,” said Michael Antonopoulos, senior advisor to the Bevin campaign.

But Owensboro, Ky., Mayor Tom Watson, a Bevin supporter, said that although he believed the impeachment drumbeat would energize Trump’s supporters, he worried it would lower turnout in other important parts of the electorate.

“So many people are disappointed in all that impeachment talk, there’s a chance a lot of conservative Democrats will stay home, and that’s a big part of what Bevin needs to win,” Watson said. “There’s fatigue from listening to all that hoo-rah. They are aggravated with Washington, and they might just stay home.”

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While polling shows the Bevin-Beshear race as neck and neck, Trump’s approval rating remains high with Kentucky voters — 57% in the latest Mason-Dixon poll, which also found that 65% disapprove of impeaching Trump.

That’s why Beshear rarely mentions Trump or impeachment in his campaign, focusing instead on the foibles of Bevin, who in polling released last month by Morning Consult had a 34% approval rating among Kentucky voters.

Bevin has stirred nonstop controversy with a pugilistic, abrasive political style that both allies and adversaries often compare to Trump’s. Some see Bevin’s 2015 election — when he became just the third GOP governor in Kentucky since World War II — as a harbinger of Trump’s presidential victory in 2016. An outsider businessman who campaigned to shake up the state capital and root out corruption, Bevin flipped many traditionally Democratic rural counties on his way to a 9-point victory.

“You could argue he was Trump before Trump,” said Fred Yang, Beshear’s pollster. “But Trump attacks people who aren’t his base; Bevin attacks everybody.”

Bevin riled many with his efforts to reform the state pension system, which met with virulent opposition from the state’s teachers, who walked off the job in protest. Bevin used brash language against his opponents, accusing protesters of having a “thug mentality.”

He in effect blamed teacher protests for increasing the risk of child abuse. “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them,” Bevin said. Even his allies said that kind of insult is coming home to roost in a state where teachers hold bipartisan sway.

State Sen. Dan Seum, a Republican who has endorsed Beshear, held a “Bullied By Bevin” picnic this fall to invite all who have felt insulted by the governor. Seum says the heavy hand of Trump’s campaigning for Bevin is a sign of weakness, not strength.

“You’ve got a Republican governor in a Republican state who is so weak, he has to bring in the president three times to save him,” Seum said.

But Trump carrying Bevin to victory isn’t a given. After the president endorsed him in the GOP primary in March, Bevin won barely half the vote. When Trump came to Kentucky for a midterm election rally in 2018 and called Bevin “a very special friend of mine,” the governor’s mention prompted a mix of boos and cheers.

Trump will likely get a warmer welcome in Kentucky on Monday, and Bevin supporters hope that enthusiasm will rub off on him.

“Think about this,” Bevin said in a local TV interview. “We’ve never in the history of Kentucky ever even had a seated president visit more than once.”


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