Sabatos Crystal Ball

Election 2019: Another Win for Democrats in Virginia Pushes State Further off the Competitive Map

Bevin blows it in Kentucky; Mississippi remains out of reach for Democrats; mixed signals confirm larger trends

Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman, Sabato's Crystal Ball November 7th, 2019

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— Virginia moves from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic in our Electoral College ratings in the wake of a fourth straight November that has broken in the Democrats’ favor.

— Gov. Matt Bevin’s (R) apparent loss in Kentucky is more of a personal repudiation of him than a broader loss for Republicans.

— Mississippi remains elusive for Democrats, and other results nationally represented a mixed bag for the parties.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Electoral College ratings change

State Old Rating New Rating
Virginia Leans Democratic Likely Democratic

Virginia: The New Democratic Dominion

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Virginia by five points while winning the national popular vote by two (and losing the Electoral College). This was the most Democratic the state had voted for president, relative to the nation, since FDR was in the White House. The following year, Democrats held all three statewide offices by surprisingly large margins, and made an eye-popping gain of 15 net seats in the state House of Delegates, coming within a drawing in a tied race from forging a 50-50 tie in the body. Last year, Democrats netted three U.S. House seats and Sen. Tim Kaine (D) was reelected easily. And then on Tuesday night, Democrats netted what appears to be a half-dozen seats in the state House and two in the state Senate to win total control of state government in Richmond.

Are you sensing a theme? We are.

Virginia was trending Democratic even before Donald Trump, with the party boosted by growing shares of Democratic-leaning demographic groups in the state’s three big urban areas (Northern Virginia, Greater Richmond, and Hampton Roads). And since Trump arrived on the scene, the state’s Democratic trend has continued, as once-Republican suburban areas have moved ever-further to the left.

There has been a lot of debate this week in election circles about the presidential election, now one year away. Two respected polls fueled this debate: In one, a poll of six key swing states from the New York Times Upshot/Siena College, Trump was locked in close races against the top-polling Democrats (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren), with Biden performing the best against Trump and Warren the worst. A national ABC News/Washington Post poll, meanwhile, showed all three Democrats trouncing Trump, with leads ranging from 14-17 points.

Even if one grants that Trump is likely to again run better in the most decisive states than he does nationally, these polls don’t really tell the same story.

But what we do feel fairly confident saying is that 1. Trump is a clear underdog to win the national popular vote, if not the Electoral College, and 2. Recent results suggest that Virginia should once again vote more Democratic than the nation. So we’re moving the state further toward the Democrats for president, shifting it from Leans Democratic in our ratings to Likely Democratic.

In terms of the actual results, Democrats ended up doing better in the state House of Delegates than the state Senate, although a lot of this was because the close races broke toward the Republicans in the Senate but more toward the Democrats in the House. It appears that the Democrats won only 21 of the 40 state Senate seats, creating just a narrow majority, but their two pickups were by nearly 10 points apiece, and no Democratic incumbent was seriously threatened. Meanwhile, Republicans held on to four of the 19 seats they apparently won by margins ranging from less than a point to about 4.5 points.

In the House of Delegates, a court-ordered new district map clearly helped Democrats: Four of their six apparent pickups came in seats that got a lot more Democratic in redistricting. That said, Democrats also picked up two additional seats that were unaffected by redistricting, and they only needed two seats to take control. So the redistricting clearly helped, although perhaps Democrats could have won the House on the old map: It’s hard to know definitively one way or the other and a statewide campaign on the old map would have been run differently than the one run on the new one.

Speaking of redistricting, newly-empowered Democrats now face a test on that question. Last year, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the first reading of a proposed state constitutional amendment that would establish an independent redistricting commission. The new Democratic-controlled General Assembly will have to decide whether to pass it a second time, which would trigger a statewide vote on the commission next November, or scuttle it and exercise gerrymandering power themselves in 2021. It’s a test of principle for Democrats, who have nationally called for nonpartisan redistricting as a response to aggressive GOP gerrymandering in many key states following the 2010 elections.

Richmond will be a hotbed of activity early next year as legislators descend on the former capital of the Confederacy with an agenda that will be as liberal as any that the once solidly-conservative state has ever seen. But by the time the presidential general election begins in earnest, the national focus seems very likely to be elsewhere.

If Virginia is truly in play for president next year, something has gone wrong for Democrats.

Kentucky: Bevin’s flop obscures GOP trend

“He’s such a pain in the a–, but that’s what you want.” — Donald Trump at a Monday night rally in Lexington for Gov. Matt Bevin (R-KY).

Well, actually, they didn’t. In the upset of the evening, Bevin apparently lost to state Attorney General Andy Beshear (D), 49.2%-48.8%. Beshear was powered to victory by an anti-Bevin vote in ancestrally Democratic counties in eastern Kentucky combined with big margins in Louisville and Lexington and a good showing in Northern Kentucky (which features suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio). In our preview last week, we flagged Campbell County in Northern Kentucky as a must-win for Beshear; he won it by five points, and he carried its neighbor, Kenton, as well. So Beshear cobbled together enough of a coalition of old Democratic areas of Kentucky and newer ones to beat Bevin, who arguably is the most unpopular governor in the United States. Bevin has not yet conceded and may try to contest the result.

Breaking the state down into congressional districts, Bevin lost ground in five of the state’s six districts (Map 1). The Louisville-based 3rd District — where both candidates hail from — saw the largest swing to Beshear. In the 2015 gubernatorial race, then-state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) carried it by a handsome 21.5%; this week, Beshear took that up to an outright punishing 37.4% margin.

Map 1: Kentucky 2015 – 2019 gubernatorial change by congressional district

Districts 2, 4 and 6 are all anchored in metro areas (Bowling Green/Owensboro, Cincinnati, and Lexington, respectively), but also take in broad rural swaths. They all swung at least 5% to Beshear. Of these, Bevin’s showing in KY-6 may be his most embarrassing. President Trump campaigned there the night before the election — only for the district to move 11% more Democratic, greater than the overall statewide shift.

Outside of the major Bluegrass State metros, its two most rural districts saw a divergence. In western Kentucky, the governor slightly improved in the 1st Congressional District. Interestingly, this seat is held by Rep. James Comer (R), who nearly beat Bevin in the 2015 gubernatorial primary because of his strength in this region. Earlier this cycle, Comer considered running for a rematch — in hindsight, had he followed through and won the primary, he would have been a much clearer favorite to keep the governorship red.

KY-1 is 63% rural by composition, so it’s exactly the type of area that has drifted rightward in the Trump era. In a vacuum, the Appalachian KY-5 would have been susceptible to the same trends. However, state Rep. Rocky Adkins (D), who hails from the region, likely proved to be an effective surrogate for Beshear in the rural east, and the region also has some clearer ancestral pockets of Democratic strength. Bevin also performed weakly in this area in his primary, a warning sign that manifested itself in the general election.

The race appeared very close but most expected Kentucky’s Republicanism to carry Bevin over the finish line. But he couldn’t dig his way out of the hole he dug for himself through his abrasive personality and battles with key constituencies, namely teachers.

The statewide turn to the GOP outside of the gubernatorial race was evident down the ballot: Beshear was the only statewide Democratic candidate who won, and Republicans won open-seat races for secretary of state and attorney general in addition to holding the rest of the other statewide offices.

Those interpreting Beshear’s victory as a major warning sign for unpopular Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) need to reckon with what happened in these other races, as well as the fact that McConnell will be running as a federal incumbent, not a state-level one, and that he will be sharing the ballot with Donald Trump, who still should win statewide in a landslide. We continue to rate the Senate race as Likely Republican.

In the end, Bevin’s nationalization message in the closing days of the campaign couldn’t quite get him a second term. Our sense is that the problem was less the message than the messenger. A Republican running statewide in Kentucky these days has to try to lose. Bevin tried for four years, and succeeded.

That said, the president chose to stake his personal capital on Bevin through his Election Eve appearance. From that standpoint, the result is a loss for the president, even though we don’t think it has broader significance beyond Kentucky.

Mississippi stays Republican, mixed signals elsewhere

Of the three big races on Tuesday night, Mississippi seemed like the best bet to stick with the Republicans, and it did in the gubernatorial race. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) beat state Attorney General Jim Hood (D) by a little less than six points. That margin was a little bit closer than but fairly similar to last year’s Senate special election, when Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) beat former Rep. Mike Espy (D) by seven points.

Compared to Espy’s 2018 showing, Hood posted modest gains in metro Jackson and along the Gulf Coast, but couldn’t match Espy’s numbers in the heavily African-American delta, or near the Memphis exurbs (Map 2). Hood’s most acute improvements came in his home region, the northeast, but the area cast relatively few votes and Hood himself took under 25% in most counties there. Trump rallied in the northeast late last week, and here the evidence is better for the president’s argument that he helped his party (as opposed to the Kentucky rally in Lexington). In order to make up Espy’s deficit, Hood needed to improve on Espy’s showing in more places than he did.

Map 2: Change from 2018 to 2019 in Mississippi 

Republicans also won the open attorney general’s office held by Hood — this was the first time the party won that race since Reconstruction.

Other results across the nation showed the confirmation of larger trends, with suburban areas moving more toward Democrats and other kinds of places, specifically rural and/or white-working class ones, trending Republican. We aren’t going to offer a total rundown of every race, but here are some potentially illuminating results:

— Democrats did well in local races in some suburban counties in greater Philadelphia, helping solidify an anti-Republican trend in those places, but Republicans made some local gains in some ancestrally Democratic western Pennsylvania counties that have been trending Republican at the federal level.

— In New Jersey, Republicans won a special election for the state Senate seat previously held by Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D, NJ-2) in South Jersey and also captured the Trump-won district’s two state assembly seats. While New Jersey as a whole is trending Democratic, Republicans made up some ground in the state legislature and confirmed the GOP trend in this part of the state. Meanwhile, Van Drew’s decision to vote against the Trump impeachment inquiry last week — he was one of only two House Democrats to do so — makes even more sense now, given the political terrain he is trying to defend.

— Democrats won a special election to capture a previously-GOP held seat in the Missouri House of Representatives contained within the suburban U.S. House district held by Rep. Ann Wagner (R, MO-2), who had a tougher race than she is accustomed to in 2018. Missouri itself is moving toward the Republicans, but again we see some signs of GOP weakness in the suburbs.

Overall, the changes reflected what we’ve been seeing over the past few years, although there are of course exceptions on any Election Day. These results don’t necessarily have predictive value for the future, but they do show the persistence of the big-picture factors that have been driving the nation’s political geography.

One thing we ask readers to consider is this: Don’t just focus on the trends that benefit your respective political party. Republicans have reason to be worried about big-city suburbs with higher levels of formal educational attainment, but Democrats have reason to be worried about rural and white working-class areas with lower levels of college attainment. We sometimes feel like the former development gets more widespread attention, but the latter one matters quite a bit, too.

On to 2020!