Governor’s races in the South, legislative elections in Virginia and city council races in Philadelphia will test if all politics is national.
A slew of elections on Tuesday, covering territory from the Mississippi Delta to the wealthy Virginia suburbs to the city of Philadelphia, and offices from city council to governor, will collectively serve as a test of just how nationalized American politics has become.
In Mississippi and Kentucky, two men ― one a local political legend, the other the son of a popular former governor ― will seek to convince their neighbors to turn against the Republican Party they trust wholly at the national level and elect Democrats to the governor’s mansion. In Virginia, Republicans hoping to cling to control of the state legislature are counting on a pair of damaging local political scandals to matter more than suburban voters’ support for gun control and loathing of President Donald Trump. And in Philadelphia, a local political machine is seeking to defeat a progressive whose campaign received a major boost from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist who was previously the communications director for the Democratic Governors’ Association, said results from last year’s midterm elections only point to things getting tougher for candidates trying to swim against the political tides.
“The real story of the 2018 election was that everyone went to their political homes, turnout was through the roof, and places that were Republican were Republican, places that were Democrat were Democrat,” Leopold said, arguing it would be a strong performance for Democrats if they win just one of the three governor’s races this year in Louisiana, Kentucky and Mississippi. “That’s the playing field we’re in now during the Trump era, with hyper-vigilance and hyper-involvement. That makes red states redder and blue states bluer.”
Not a single federal office is up for grabs Tuesday. But the election results could also offer previews of key political questions ahead of the 2020 presidential election: Do Republicans stand any chance of reclaiming the suburbs in the Trump era? Can Democrats ― conservative or otherwise ― possibly hope to win back rural white voters in significant numbers?
Here are the elections to watch on Tuesday.
The two headline elections on Tuesday night are battles for governorships in Kentucky and Mississippi, both states where Democrats’ decades-long grip on state government finished its long decline during Barack Obama’s presidency. Trump won both states by double digits in 2016, but this year, Democrats have managed to mount robust and well-funded campaigns in both states.
In Mississippi, Democrats have something of a dream candidate: Jim Hood, the state’s mulleted, four-term attorney general known for helping consumers win big settlements against insurance companies after Hurricane Katrina. Hood, who is one of just three statewide elected Democrats in the Deep South, is facing Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a fairly standard issue southern Republican of the country-club variety.
Public polling has shown Hood with a chance of victory, and Republicans are worried enough about the outcome to deploy Trump to Tupelo ― Hood’s home base ― to help lock down conservative voters ahead of the election.
“If you don’t want a far-left Democrat running Mississippi — wait a minute,” Trump told the state’s voters on Friday night. “How’s this guy, you know, I can’t believe this is a competitive race. It’s, like, embarrassing. I’m talking to Mississippi, you know? I’m talking to Mississippi. I can’t believe it.”
Hood, who opposes abortion rights and supports gun rights, bears some similarities to Democratic Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards. As Edwards did during the campaign that led to his upset victory four years ago, Hood has focused on Medicaid expansion as a political winner that would deliver health coverage to 100,000 more residents in a state with one of the highest uninsured rates in the country and played up his moderate bona fides. (He’s also hammered Reeves as a political insider and career politician — which is likely an effective charge, though not as effective as Edwards’ attack on then-GOP Sen. David Vitter for picking “prostitutes over patriots.”)
“They know I’m a moderate and I’m gonna get things done,” Hood said of the state’s voters ahead of Trump’s visit. “They know nothing crazy is gonna come through that legislature, it’s gonna be a conservative legislature.”
Part of Hood’s effort to distance himself from his party, however, has meant declining to endorse Democrat Jennifer Riley Collins, a former state American Civil Liberties Union director and retired Army colonel who is running to replace him as attorney general. She would be the first African American elected statewide in Mississippi since the Reconstruction era. (Mississippi is 38% African American, and its politics are sharply polarized along racial lines, requiring Democrats to make inroads with conservative whites to win.)
In an interview, Riley Collins downplayed Hood’s decision, and played up what her victory would mean for the state: “It means Mississippi is no longer a closed society. It means Mississippi is now open to all of its citizens,” she said, adding that “overcoming barriers is nothing new for an African American woman in Mississippi.”
Both Hood and Riley Collins have an additional barrier: They’re competing with Republicans under a Jim Crow-era law requiring a candidate to win not only a plurality of the vote, but also a majority of the state’s legislative districts. If they don’t, the state legislature gets to determine the victor.
The Democratic candidate in Kentucky, Attorney General Andy Beshear, has not run as far from party orthodoxy as Hood has. The son of a popular former governor, he supports abortion rights, and, by emphasizing education and health care, his campaign has largely reflected those run by successful 2018 congressional candidates.
Beshear’s relatively standard campaign has forced his unpopular opponent, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, to aggressively nationalize the race. Bevin’s abrasive style — he once accused striking teachers of abetting child molestation — has alienated Kentucky voters. (Campaigning for him on Monday night, Trump declared: “He’s such a pain in the ass, but that’s what you want.”)
Bevin has repeatedly attacking Beshear for his abortion stance, linking him to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and dubbed him “the Hunter Biden of Kentucky” during one debate.
“In Kentucky, if you turn it into a shirts-and-skins exercise, it should be better for Republicans because there are more of us than them,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP political strategist based in Louisville.
Public polling points to a close race in Kentucky, which is dominated by rural white voters, but Jennings noted Republicans are on a substantial winning streak in the state, outperforming expectations in 2014, 2015 and 2018. Democrats, similarly, are aware of how quickly a Kentucky election can turn against them: What appeared to be a close race in 2015 turned into a 9-point Bevin blowout.
Remember when Virginia Democrats’ scandals dominated national news? The state’s Republicans hope you do.
In early 2019, revelations about Gov. Ralph Northam allegedly wearing blackface and two sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax rocked the party, which had been steadily turning the state blue for more than a decade. (Fairfax has denied the sexual assault allegations.)
But 10 months later, the scandals have done little to dampen Democratic expectations. The party, backed by millions in outside spending from liberal groups and donors, is optimistic about taking back the three seats they need to control the House of Delegates and the two seats necessary to capture the state Senate.
Trying to stave off a dive into policymaking irrelevance, Republicans have resurrected the scandal. In a race for a GOP-held Senate seat in Loudoun and Prince William counties, two of the nation’s wealthiest jurisdictions, Republican Geary Higgins is airing an ad alleging that his Democratic opponent, current state Del. John Bell, “silenced” two women who accused Fairfax. Other Republicans around the state have made similar attacks in mailers.
On a conference call hosted by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, Bell said the scandals were a non-issue for voters.
“I haven’t had to explain it to a single voter. And voters see it for what it is: a complete distraction,” he said, before firing back at Republicans: “Did they get permission from those victims? I don’t think they did. They completely used their tragedy.”
Bell, meanwhile, has joined almost every Democrat running for the legislature by placing a heavy emphasis on gun control. In his television ad, he picks up a bullet on a high school football field to highlight his efforts to overturn a law allowing firing ranges within 100 yards of a school.
“I’m not afraid of the NRA, especially when it comes to keeping our kids safe,” he says in the 30-second spot.
And while Higgins and other Virginia Republicans spent the summer and early fall portraying themselves as moderates, he’s ending the race with attempts to fire up conservatives. Higgins held a Monday afternoon rally with right-wing talk show host Mark Levin, and was endorsed by Trump just after midnight on Monday. Bell was confident that the president’s endorsement would backfire in a district that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Northam in 2017 and Sen. Tim Kaine in 2018.
“I wished he had done it about two weeks ago,” he said. “It would’ve helped me even more.”
The Working Families Party, a national progressive group backed by unions, is looking to make a big splash in Philadelphia on Tuesday. It’s fielded candidates for two at-large city council seats reserved for members of minority parties (i.e. not Democrats). Historically, Republicans have won those seats, but the WFP is hoping to “kick the party of Trump out of city hall.”
The Democratic political machine in the city, led by former Congressman Bob Brady, has resisted this effort. When Councilwoman Helen Gym, a rising star in the city’s Democratic circles, backed the candidacy of Kendra Brooks, a public education advocate who is running as an independent with the backing of the WFP, Brady lashed out at Gym for breaking party ranks.
“That’s stupid and she shouldn’t do it, and I think it’s going to hurt her in the long run,” Brady told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “They’re taking votes from a Democratic candidate and that’s our slate, and anybody that’s taking votes from a Democrat is the opposition.”
But Brooks soon received an even more high-profile endorsement: Elizabeth Warren, one of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, announced her support of Brooks in September. That endorsement set up a natural political science experiment: Do Philadelphia voters care more about their longtime party machine? Or about the preferences of a leading national progressive politician?
In an interview, WFP National Director Maurice Mitchell argued that victories by Brooks and Philadelphia’s other WFP-endorsed candidate, Nicholas O’Rourke, would have an outsized impact.
“It would change the politics of Philly dramatically,” he said. “It’ll mean progressives [on the council] have a bloc.”
He said if their efforts in Philadelphia are successful, they could bring the strategy to other jurisdictions that have city council seats reserved for non-Democratic candidates, including Washington, D.C.
“We want this to be a showcase of independent political power that could take hold in any city in the country,” Mitchell said.