2019 election will test Republican, Trump base
Analysis & Opinion by RUSS STEWART
Had Hillary Clinton have been elected president, Republicans would now have firm control of the U.S. Senate and the House, and the Democrats firm control of the federal government and the U.S. Supreme Court, which would have a 6-3 liberal majority. And a bunch of Republicans, including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, would be hoping to ride an anti-Clinton, anti-liberal pushback to the presidency next year.
Instead, it’s the opposite. Republicans have control of the presidency and the Senate, Democrats firm control of the House, and the Supreme Court’s conservative majority is stuck at 5-4. The basic rationale for a Trump second term is that he could make two more Supreme Court appointments, increasing the conservative majority to 7-2. But a Democratic Senate could and would block that eventuality. The Republicans 53-47 Senate majority is in serious jeopardy in 2020.
But national politics is perpetually fluid. One-party dominance, such as the Democrats’ president/ Senate/House control in 1993-94 and 2009-10 and Republicans’ 2004-06 and 2017-18, rarely eclipses 2 years.
The expectancy is this: If Trump retains his office it will be because the economy remains robust and the Democrats fielded a flawed candidate, but they will have Senate and House majorities. That means 4 more years of congressional gridlock, an impeachment attempt at some future date, and a Democratic sweep of the 2022 elections. At some point Trump fatigue will become overwhelming, and at some point the economy will sputter.
Or conversely, a Democrat – or possibly a democratic socialist – could beat Trump, create great polarity by pushing Medicare-for-all, open borders, free college tuition, student loan forgiveness and military cuts, and thereby reinvigorate Republicans as the opposition party, spurring a 2022 resurgence.
At present, the Republican brand is nearly non-existent. Being a Republican officeholder is equated with being pro-Trump. But being pro-Trump does not necessarily mean being a Republican.
There is a definite divide. If 2020 Trump voters in pro-Trump or toss-up states don’t support Republican congressional and senatorial candidates, the outcome will be a Democratic sweep.
The 2019 election will give a clue. Three states, Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana, have elections for governor, the latter two on Nov. 5 and Louisiana on Oct. 12 with a Nov. 16 runoff. Each state is "red," meaning massively Republican, each with two Republican senators, and congressional delegation majorities of 5-1, 3-1 and 5-1, respectively; in each state Republicans have substantial state legislative majorities, and the governorship in KY and MS. A Democrat beat a flawed Republican in 2015 in Louisiana.
Trump won each state in 2016 by significant majorities: Kentucky by 1,202,971-628,854, getting 65.5 percent with a majority of 574,117, Mississippi by 700,714-485,131, getting 57.9 percent with a majority of 215,583, and Louisiana by 1,178,638-782,154, getting 58.1 percent with a majority of 396,484. Mississippi and Louisiana have an African-American population of 37.6 percent and 31.2 percent, respectively.
A Republican in the two Deep South states needs a minimum 65-70 percent of the white vote to just break even, and Trump got close to 80 percent. So how is it possible that a Democrat could win all three governorships in such a pro-Trump environment? And, by all indications, Trump is still enormously popular and will win in 2020. But Democrats have fielded moderate Democrats in Mississippi and Kentucky who can chip away at the pro-Trump coalition. Republicans are attempting to reinforce their own anti-tax brand, separate from Trump. A Democratic sweep is possible – but so is a Republican sweep.
KENTUCKY: This is the Blue Grass state of the iconic Mitch McConnell, the 77-year old Republican Senate majority leader, who has served for 35 years. McConnell is seeking his seventh term in 2020, so the outcome of the 2019 governor’s race is critical. Unlike Deep South states, upper South Kentucky’s population is 85 percent white, so there is no African-American Democratic base vote, and elections are predicated more on personalities and less on ideology and not on race.
Republicans have won the governorship only four times in the past 76 years: in 1943, 1967, 2003 and 2015. Incumbent Matt Bevin (R) won 511,771-426,827 in 2015, getting 52.5 percent in a 974,225 turnout. That was 857,600 less than in the Trump-Clinton race, with a 1,831,805 turnout, and Bevin, a big Trump booster, received 691,200 fewer votes than Trump.
Bevin has established his own identity, championing charter schools, and cutting the state budget and Medicaid coverage. His Democratic opponent is Andy Beshear, the state attorney general and son of former governor Steve Beshear (2007-15). The Democrat has been endorsed by the Kentucky Education Association and has out-raised Bevin $2.1 million to $1.1 million. The Bevin-Beshear race began 4 years ago, evolving through the courts.
Bevin through executive order abolished five state educational boards, and created a Charter School Advisory Board. Beshear then sued, claiming the executive orders "exceeded" the governor’s authority and were illegal, even though there had been 357 such orders since 1992, and 103 during Beshear’s dad’s tenure. The suit was filed in June 2017, and the Nov. 2017 ruling found that the governor could execute any order when the "legislature was not in session." Beshear’s appeal to the state Supreme Court was rejected in June 2019.
This year’s Democratic primary had a turnout of 394,490, and Beshear got 37.9 percent; the Republican primary turnout was 259,854 and Bevin got 52.4 percent. Clearly, neither candidate is much beloved. To win, Bevin needs more than half the 2016 Trump vote, and Beshear 80 percent of the Clinton vote and 10-15 percent of the Trump vote. OUTLOOK: Bevin will win with 55 percent.
MISSISSIPPI: It’s throwback time. The era of cutting taxes and spending is deemed anachronistic, a relic of Reagan’s 1980s. Yet Republicans in Mississippi have done just that, with a "tax reform" package by Governor Phil Bryant that cuts the state income tax, particularly on the lower tax brackets, and eliminates the franchise tax on corporations. The Republicans have shrewdly branded themselves as the anti-tax, not pro-Trump party. Bryant won re-election in 2015 with 66.6 percent over a black candidate, meaning he got 80 percent of the white vote. A Republican has been governor for 24 of the past 28 years.
The 2019 candidates are Tate Reeves (R), Bryant’s lieutenant governor, and 12-year attorney general Jim Hood (D), an anti-abortion "moderate" who needs the black vote plus 25-30 percent of the white vote to win. In the June primary, turnout was 302,390 for the Democrats, and in the runoff it was 326,683 for the Republicans. That shows the close party balance. Reeves is running as the Bryant clone and Hood as the Mr. Nice Guy fuzzy-on-Trump Democrat who won’t much change the status quo.
2015’s turnout was 892,204, and 2016’s 1,185,845, with Trump getting 700,714 votes. The Reeves-Hood race has no racial connotations – nor did Trump-Clinton. It’s all about who can best interests of Mississippi’s dwindling but still substantial white majority. OUTLOOK: Reeves will in 52-48.
LOUISIANA: Republicans in 2015 had three candidates: A U.S. Senator, state secretary of state and a public service commissioner. The Democrat was John Bel Edwards, an obscure state legislator. In the state’s primary/runoff scheme, much like Chicago’s, the Republican vote was split, and Bel Edwards and senator David Vitter (R) moved to the runoff. Vitter had once used the services of a D.C. Madame, and that was the issue. Bel Edwards won with 56.1 percent.
The tax cuts of predecessor Bobby Jindal (R), who served 2007-15, left a budget hole, and Bel Edwards pushed through a huge $1.5 billion tax hike, raising the sales tax from 4 to 5 percent, with a 2018 sunset. That didn’t happen. Bel Edwards then sought to renew 0.45 of the one percent, with a sunset of 2025. During Bel Edward’s term, Louisiana was the only state that lost jobs and had a 1.1 percent growth in GDP, lowest in the country. Bel Edwards then proposed a gross receipts tax, which he called a Commercial Activity Tax, which put a 0.35 percent annual tax on business’ gross revenues – NOT NET PROFITS. A business losing money would still pay. The plan was rejected by the Republican legislature.
Bel Edwards’s 2019 opponents are not very formidable, despite his considerable baggage: U.S. Representative Ralph Abraham (R-5), a veterinarian, and Eddie Respone, a wealthy businessman and longtime Republican fund-raiser. A Bel Edwards 50-percent-plus majority on Oct. 12 is unlikely, with a Bel Edwards-Abraham Nov. 16 runoff likely. OUTLOOK: The governor lacks charisma, a base among minorities and liberals, and any hook into the Trump vote, which was 58.1 percent. Bel Edwards won’t top 46 percent.
The bottom line: In the three contests, the 2016 pro-Trump vote will stick with the Republican candidate. That is encouraging for state-level Republicans, but a lot can change over the next year.