Against the Grain

The Democrats’ Red-State Opportunities for 2019

With a lineup of strong candidates, Democrats are well-positioned to compete for three governorships in the most Trump-friendly states in the country.

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear
AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Dec. 9, 2018, 6 a.m.

If Republicans can win governorships in the bluest parts of New England, surely Democrats can return the favor in the conservative South. Aside from all the presidential maneuvering in the coming year, 2019 will give Democrats a legitimate chance to score a red-state trifecta in states where the party barely competes anymore.

It will be an important test for the Democratic Party, which is in ascendance under Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency but still is geographically concentrated on the coasts and in the affluent suburbs. But win two terms in Louisiana, flip Kentucky’s governorship, and stun the political class with a Mississippi surprise, and Democrats would prove they’ve become a national party yet again.

Indeed, a confluence of favorable developments is giving Democrats a unique opportunity in these conservative states. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin is one of the least popular governors in the country, with entitlement cuts and education reforms hurting his standing in the state. Sen. John Kennedy decided not to run against Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards this week, leaving Republicans with an underwhelming field of candidates against the likable first-term executive. And Mississippi Democrats recruited their lone statewide official, four-term Attorney General Jim Hood, into the governor’s race, giving the party a fighting chance to win the state’s top job for the first time since 1999.

The Kentucky race is shaping up to be compelling and consequential. Bevin became only the state’s second Republican governor in the last 45 years, ushering in a realignment in which Republicans won control of both chambers in the legislature for the first time since 1920. But Bevin’s ambitious conservative agenda, frosty relationship with key Republican lawmakers, and propensity for gaffes have jeopardized his reelection chances. An October 2018 Morning Consult survey pegged Bevin’s job-approval rating at 30 percent, the worst of any governor still in office next year.

Attorney General Andy Beshear, the son of the last Democratic governor, looks like Bevin’s leading opponent. The two have been feuding over higher-education cuts and pension reforms, a preview of what’s to come for a potential general election. Amy McGrath, a celebrated Democratic congressional recruit, is also mulling over a gubernatorial bid after narrowly losing to GOP Rep. Andy Barr.

Adding to the importance of the Kentucky governor’s race: It will offer clues for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as he prepares for another competitive reelection in 2020. McConnell will be favored, but his job-approval rating back home has been consistently weak. If Bevin can overcome his own challenges to win a second term, it would suggest McConnell will be able to nationalize his own reelection in Trump country.

Louisiana is another fascinating case study for the future of Southern Democrats. Gov. Edwards is a throwback to the populist Democrats of generations past, a pro-gun social conservative who expanded Medicaid, advocated a higher minimum wage, and challenged the state’s influential oil and gas companies. His favorability is solid enough that he’s avoided challenges from Kennedy and state Attorney General Jeff Landry. One of his announced opponents, Rep. Ralph Abraham, cuts such a low profile that the Democratic Governors Association put out a mocking statement headlined: “Congressman Ralph Abraham: Ever Heard of Him?”

With nearly a year until the election, Edwards looks to be in enviable position. But don’t underestimate President Trump’s eagerness to intervene—and transform a contest in a state where he’s still popular. Two newly elected Southern Republican governors (Brian Kemp and Ron DeSantis) are in office, thanks to well-timed presidential interventions.

Mississippi is the unlikeliest battleground of the three 2019 contests, but Democrats have landed their strongest possible candidate in a state where outgoing GOP Gov. Phil Bryant is term-limited. Hood, first elected in 2003, has comfortably won four straight statewide elections even as the state has become solidly Republican. His successful 2005 prosecution of Edgar Ray Killen, who took part in the murder of three civil rights activists in 1964, earned him a national profile and strong support from the state’s sizable African-American community. He’s hoping to forge a cross-racial coalition of black voters and working-class whites, saying in his campaign kickoff that he’s “tired of seeing the least among us getting kicked to the curb."

His opponent is expected to be Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, whose Republican party affiliation will go a long way in the conservative state. Veteran Mississippi political scribe Sid Salter calls the expected Hood-Reeves matchup “an “instant classic old school, political street brawl—the likes of which hasn’t been seen in Mississippi since Republican Haley Barbour squared off against Democrat Ronnie Musgrove in 2003.” Democrats were encouraged by Mike Espy’s competitive showing last month in a Senate runoff against GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith, when the Democrat won 46 percent of the vote.

African-American turnout will be crucial in all three of these contests—particularly in the Deep South states of Louisiana and Mississippi. Black voters turned out en masse for progressives Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum in their unsuccessful candidacies in nearby Florida and Georgia. It’s an open question whether they will do the same for moderate white candidates in an off-year election.

The 2018 midterm elections demonstrated that governor’s races operate in a less partisan environment than congressional contests. Democrats were able to win in solidly Republican Kansas, while Republicans prevailed in Maryland, Vermont, and Massachusetts. But the results also showed that governor's races are becoming more nationalized. Despite recruiting strong candidates, Democrats fell short in Oklahoma and South Dakota.

If Democrats win governorships in the reddest of states, it would send a powerful symbolic message that the party can compete everywhere in the country with candidates who reflect the states they’re running in. If they fall short, it would be another sign of the cultural divisions between Red and Blue America hardening to the point of no return.

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