An obscure race for governor of Kentucky has Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff breathing a lot easier. In a mild upset, Democrat Andy Beshear defeated incumbent Republican governor Matt Bevin on Tuesday. Bevin’s whole campaign was about supporting President Trump and opposing impeachment, but he lost, albeit very narrowly.
This result, and other results around the country, show that impeachment which is being led by these two Californians is not a drag for the Democrats. In fact, it may be helping them politically.
The results we saw in 2018 that led to Democrats reclaiming the House of Representatives by running up huge margins in the suburbs were replicated in the 2019 races. Republicans lost the Virginia legislature because they got killed in the Washington DC and Richmond suburbs; they lost their last foothold in the Philadelphia suburbs that once returned nothing but Republicans to office. But most interesting is what happened to them in Kentucky.
Kentucky is an interesting state; it is not an impoverished Appalachian state, in fact, it is famed for its fine bourbon distilleries and its lush blue grass horse breeding and horse racing country. It was home to the greatest statesman of the 19th Century who did not become president, Henry Clay. “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky,” Lincoln said, making sure Kentucky stayed with the Union.
Kentucky was a Democratic leaning two party state for many years, but in the past three decades, as the national Democratic party lurched leftward on social issues, Kentucky became a ruby red bastion: all but one member of Congress, both Senators and now all but the governor are Republicans.
Bevin was an unpopular governor, in fact, the most unpopular governor in the country. But in his re-election he wrapped himself in Trump and made opposition to impeachment his calling card. It should have worked, Trump carried Kentucky by 30 points in 2016 and polling showed impeachment was not popular there. On Monday, Trump himself campaign with Bevin in Lexington, telling the crowd a loss for Bevin would be a repudiation of Trump in one of his best states.
So how did Bevin lose? He got caught in the vice that hurt Republicans in 2018 and could be devastating for them in 2020: the suburbs. Like Republicans in 2018, Bevin did fine in rural Kentucky and in its small cities and towns. He lost the Democratic voting big cities like Louisville, but crucially he also lost in the suburbs.
In his successful election in 2015, he carried the Louisville suburbs, while losing the county by 40,000 votes. This time he lost the county by more than 100,000 votes; in other words, he was swamped in the suburbs. Three Kentucky counties are suburbs of Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River. In 2015, Bevin carried all three, this time he lost two of three.
There were warning signs for Republicans in other states. Philadelphia is one of the most Democratic cities in America but it has an odd rule that the “minority party” gets two seats on its city council. To find a Republican in Philadelphia these days you need to go to a cemetery, but they did hold two seats on the city council. This year candidates of the Working Families party, a socialist outgrowth of the Democrats, defeated the last GOPers in Philly.
But even worse for Republicans, they lost all their seats on the Delaware County, Pennsylvania, board of supervisors. This is a “Main Line” Philadelphia suburb that had been Republican since the Civil War. Not any more.
The key to 2020 will not be the working class whites that Trump won in 2016; it will be the upper income white suburban vote where Republicans collapsed in 2018 and now in 2019.