SALT LAKE CITY — The Republican Party had a rough evening Tuesday after two elections flipped in favor of Democrats, reportedly raising concerns among GOP leaders about the future of the party heading into the 2020 elections. But that concern may be misguided.
Headlines in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s elections suggest that “Trump is on borrowed time” and that he was a “loser” on the night. Others considered this “bad news for Trump” and argued the elections show “how weak he’s become.”
“Another massive setback for Donald Trump. He is political poison for Republican politicians in general elections,” wrote Joe Scarborough of NBC.
“The result of last night’s elections should send a shiver down the spines of Donald Trump and every Republican running in 2020,” according to Texas Democrats.
But forecasts that Tuesday night’s election results are a sign of things to come for Trump’s Republican Party may be wrong. These numbers may not tell us anything about what might happen in 2020.
“It’s sort of a myth of the referendum,” said Boyd Matheson, the opinion editor of the Deseret News and a former political strategist. “Off-off-years are almost never a referendum. Midterm is much more of an indicator but off-off years are mostly personality-driven.”
In Kentucky, Democrat Andy Beshear is the apparent winner in the Kentucky race for governor, unseating the incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin. Beshear leads by 5,150 votes with 99% of districts reporting, according to NBC News. Bevin did not immediately concede and called for a recanvas late Wednesday.
And Republicans woke up Wednesday to a now-blue Virginia, which hasn’t seen a GOP victory in a statewide race since 2009. Democrats flipped the House of Delegates and the state Senate, giving the party full control of the General Assembly, the state’s legislative branch.
The GOP did hold onto Mississippi, though, giving them one bright spot for the night.
Though there is some concern among Republican leaders, it may not be time to start flipping out about the party’s future.
Off-year elections — like Tuesday night’s elections — are “really about strategy, structure and discipline,” said Matheson.
“You literally have to go door-to-door to get people out to vote, especially this year. You’ve got to be committed. ... If they don’t understand campaign strategy, structure and disciplines, those candidates tend to lose in off years,” Matheson said.
Still, Tuesday’s results reportedly have Republican leaders worried that the constant twists in the impeachment inquiry are causing concern among voters and that Trump’s attitude might not be working in their favor.
“The 2018 trend of the suburbs rebelling against the president and his party is continuing,” according to Ella Nilsen of Vox. “Trump wanted to project strength going into an election year when he’ll be on the ballot, and Bevin’s loss has to hurt, badly.”
So are these results a referendum on Trump and the current state of the GOP? Are Republicans set for a rude awakening come 2020?
“I don’t think there’s a lot of Trump in the numbers really. You look at the numbers and I think you’d be hard pressed to find anybody who voted one way or another in this election because of Trump. It’s just sort of a myth,” Matheson said.
Bevin’s loss comes a day after the president held a late rally there and predicted that the GOP would suffer if Democrats won the day.
“If you lose, it just sends a bad message. And they will build it up. They win, they’re going to make it like, ho-hum. And if you lose they’re gonna say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. You can’t let that happen to me.”
But Bevin’s loss in Kentucky could be more personal than it appears. Bevin has had a strained relationship with state GOP leaders since he took on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the primary a few years back, Matheson said.
“The old guard all hates Bevin so they were all too happy to see him go,” Matheson said. “So Kentucky’s not really a good indicator.”
“They don’t mention Trump helped propel those guys to those places,” he exclaimed. “Yes, I like Matt Bevin, he’s been a friend of mine, he’s a good guy, but he has picked a lot of battles and he’s teed off on a lot of people in Kentucky, that’s not always popular, we understand how that works.”
Trump Jr. was adamant that these races have nothing to do with Trump Sr.
“This has nothing to do with Trump,” he declared. “They swept the rest of the ticket, did great in Mississippi, et cetera, et cetera.”
But there was one highly-contested race in the state, where Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves leads the governor’s race by 5 points. Reeves received a bump from Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr., and Vice President Mike Pence, who all campaigned in the state for Reeves, which appeared to push him over the edge, CNN reported.
Trump praised Reeves in a tweet Tuesday night.
“Our big Rally on Friday night moved the numbers from a tie to a big WIN. Great reaction under pressure Tate,” Trump tweeted.
Still, Virginia’s flip may be a sign that the state is heading blue for the long term. Republicans are bracing for Democratic policy changes. Democrats are now in charge of redrawing legislative districts after the 2020 census, which could present some problems for GOP incumbents, too.
Experts told The Washington Post that Virginia’s flip has been coming for a long time.
“If you didn’t see this coming, you’ve been living under a rock,” Dan Scandling, who was chief of staff to former congressman Frank Wolf (R-Virginia), told The Washington Post. “Virginia has been trending this way for years. Being so close to Washington — and add in the anti-Trump phenomenon — it was only a matter of time.”
“The Republican Party is toast in Virginia for the next 10 years,” Corey Stewart, the outgoing Prince William County chair of the Board of Supervisors, told The Washington Post. “Republicans will cease to be a serious political power.”