Three nail-biting gubernatorial contests in deeply red states have both Democrats and Republicans on edge in the two weeks before Election Day, in races that will test President Trump’s ability to move votes a year before his reelection bid.
Two incumbents, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), are on the ballot next month. In the third state, Mississippi, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is facing off against Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood.
And in all three contests, polls show a tied race. The latest Mason-Dixon poll in Kentucky showed Bevin and his rival, Attorney General Andy Beshear (D), knotted at 46 percent apiece. A We Ask America survey in Louisiana found Edwards and businessman Eddie Rispone (R) locked at 47 percent each. An internal survey conducted for Hood’s campaign shows him leading Reeves 45 percent to 42 percent, well within the statistical margin of error. And a Mason-Dixon poll released Wednesday morning shows Reeves leading Hood by a similarly slim 46 percent to 43 percent margin, also within the margin of error.
On the face of it, the close races might reflect a strong political climate for Democrats in three deep-red states that President Trump easily carried in 2016. Democrats say they are confident that the closely fought contests bode well for them next year, even if they do not achieve a clean sweep.
“Under normal circumstances you’d expect that these states would all be Republican strongholds,” said Colm O’Comartun, a former head of the Democratic Governors Association. “In those three states, winning 1 out of 3 would be a good night for Democrats.”
But all three states are ancestral Democratic bastions where Republican governors are the exception, not the rule.
Mississippi and Louisiana have each elected only three Republican governors since Reconstruction, all within the last 40 years. Just two of the last 10 Kentucky governors have been Republican, and the last one — Ernie Fletcher — is the only governor to have lost reelection since the state allowed its governors to seek a second term in the 1990s.
The results in recent years show the evolution of voter attitudes in socially conservative areas where Democrats still outnumber Republicans by wide margins, but where those Democratic voters now reliably vote for the GOP.
In several parts of eastern and western Kentucky, Democratic state legislators hold seats in districts President Trump carried with two-thirds of the vote or more. In Louisiana’s October election, Republicans carried legislative districts in Acadiana, west of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, that the party had not even bothered to contest in recent years.
Democrats are in striking distance of winning all three states because they face Republican nominees who have had to work to unite their bases.
In Louisiana’s October election, Edwards took 47 percent of the vote, while the two leading Republicans split 51 percent of the vote. Because no candidate scored a majority, Edwards and the top Republican vote-getter, Rispone, will meet in a Nov. 16 runoff. Edwards won his last runoff in 2015 after his Republican rival, then-Sen. David Vitter (R), failed to rebuild the GOP coalition.
Kentucky’s Bevin spent much of his first term picking fights with Republican legislators and even his lieutenant governor. He limped through this year’s primary, taking only 52 percent of the Republican vote against three underfunded contenders, one of whom has endorsed Beshear.
In Mississippi, Reeves was forced into a runoff against former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller that cost millions in extra television advertising; Reeves won the runoff by 8 percentage points.
In states that are so red, where even Democrats like President Trump, the partisan evolution that is part of a broader trend toward polarization works on Republicans’ behalf — even in gubernatorial contests where party loyalists have historically been willing to cross the aisle to vote for a party they don’t typically consider. Republicans hold governorships in deep blue states like Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont; Democrats run the governor’s mansion in red states like Montana and Kansas.
That openness to a candidate from either side is fading in gubernatorial races just as it has in races for federal office.
“The drift toward partisanship is making red states redder and blue states bluer. It shouldn’t surprise anybody if Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky are becoming redder in this hyperpartisan environment,” O’Comartun said.
John Couvillon, a Louisiana-based pollster, pointed to October election results in which Edwards’s performance in ancestrally Democratic rural areas fell far short of his vote share in his first election, in 2015.
“What you saw was shadows of the 2016 presidential campaign in this race,” Couvillon said. “In the more rural or blue collar-ish areas of Louisiana, Gov. Edwards did worse than he did in 2015 by double-digit margins.”
The phenomenon of exacerbated polarization predates President Trump, but because the contests this year are in such heavily Republican states, the GOP’s candidates are happy to exploit those hyperpartisan feelings for their benefit.
Trump campaigned with both Rispone and his main Republican rival, Rep. Ralph Abraham (R), the day before this month’s initial election. Trump plans to appear with Bevin at Rupp Arena in Lexington, home of the Kentucky Wildcats, the night before Bluegrass voters head to the polls. Next Friday, he will appear with Reeves at a rally in Tupelo, Miss.
Brad Todd, Reeves’s top strategist, said Trump’s engagement helps crystalize the partisan stakes in an election in which the Democratic candidate is trying to put as much distance between himself and the national party as possible.
“Jim Hood is trying to completely deceive Mississippians into thinking that he can win an election using liberal national donors without any obligation or connection to the liberal national party,” Todd said. “President Trump’s engagement in the race blows away that smokescreen.”
Several times in recent years, Democrats have come tantalizingly close to winning races in conservative bastions, most recently last month in North Carolina, when Rep. Dan Bishop (R) beat Democratic nominee Dan McCready by about 2 percentage points.
This year, Democratic strategists say they can claim a moral victory once again — even if Republicans win a majority of the races on the ballot.
“While a Republican sweep is possible, it’s also conceivable that Democrats win two of three,” said Tom Bonier, a Democratic voter turnout expert. “I think it would be a mistake to read meaning into these races based solely on which side wins. The results should all be taken in the broader context of the generic partisanship of each state, which is very Republican in each case.”