Campaigns

Democrats lean into 2019 victories to build case for 2020

But next year's reality in red states may be more complicated

Democrat Amy McGrath, who lost a House race in 2018, is trying to challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2020. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The day after a Democrat declared victory in the Kentucky governor’s race and Virginia voters gave full control of state government to the party’s legislative candidates, national Democrats were eager to spin those victories as a sign of good things to come in 2020.

But the reality in some places, especially longtime red areas, is more complicated.

And while the party interpreted Tuesday’s victories as a sign that their messaging, especially on issues like health care, is working, it’s yet to be seen how Democrats will compete at the national level in 2020 with the House’s impeachment inquiry providing a controversial backdrop.

Democrats can win everywhere?

Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez painted Tuesday night’s wins as the latest triumph in a series of down-ballot successes that began with Democratic victories in New Jersey and Virginia in 2017.

“A month later, Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama taught us we could win everywhere,” Perez said at a Christian Science Monitor Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday morning. He went on to tout Democrats’ historic gains in the House in 2018 “even in the headwinds of gerrymandering.” 

The Associated Press hasn’t called Kentucky governor’s race yet, and GOP Gov. Matt Bevin hasn’t conceded. Attorney General Andy Beshear led Bevin by less than half a percentage point Wednesday. 

“Yesterday’s victory was a victory for all Democrats,” Perez said. 

Democrats across the country Wednesday tried to claim a part of the victories. A barrage of fundraising emails from down-ballot candidates in states far away from Virginia and Kentucky told supporters that Tuesday night’s results were a sign that they, too, could flip Republican seats in 2020.

In Kentucky, Democrat Amy McGrath, who’s challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2020, sent out a fundraising email soon after Beshear declared victory: “All I have to say is: Mitch you’re next.”

Other Democratic Senate candidates sent out fundraising emails asking for donors to split contributions between them and McGrath. Democrats need to gain four Senate seats in 2020 to win control of the chamber, or three if they win the White House and the vice president acts as a tie-breaker.

The party is defending two incumbents in states that President Donald Trump carried in 2016, including Jones, who only narrowly defeated a Republican who faced allegations of sexual misconduct with young women. Running for a full term in a state Trump carried by 28 points, Jones is No. 1 on CQ Roll Call’s ranking of the 10 most vulnerable senators in 2020.

But Democrats are looking to Attorney General Andy Beshear’s performance in Kentucky, which Trump carried by 30 points in 2016, to argue that Democrats can win statewide in red states. 

Like Jones in Alabama, though, Beshear’s performance in Kentucky could be an anomaly. Republicans won every other statewide office on the ballot, including electing the state’s first African American attorney general. 

Bevin has been an unpopular governor. He already had bad blood with some Republicans for having challenged McConnell in a primary in 2014, and he continued to make enemies. His loss, therefore, may have been more him and less about any sudden partisan swings in Kentucky that would portend trouble for McConnell next year. 

McConnell responded to Tuesday’s elections by praising the Republicans who won statewide and thanking the president for coming to the state on the eve of the election.

Although Trump’s rally wasn’t enough to help Bevin win, Trump’s team is arguing Bevin did better than he would have without Trump’s assistance. Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel even argued Bevin had been down 17 points until Trump’s visit. (Perez on Wednesday said his numbers didn’t back that up.)

Trump, himself, weighed in about what 2019’s results mean for McConnell, tweeting the Senate leader “will win BIG in Kentucky next year.” 

Suburban success

With Beshear’s strong performance in cities and suburbs, and Democrats flipping suburban-area legislative seats, Democrats once again underscored that affluent, well-educated voters — especially those that don’t like Trump — are moving away from the Republican Party.

By flipping Virginia’s state House and Senate, Democrats now have full control over the state’s government, which will be a boon to the party heading into post-census redistricting in 2021. 

Outside groups that support gun control and abortion rights claimed victory Wednesday, arguing their issues can be winning issues for Democrats in 2020. Twenty-three candidates endorsed by the gun control group started by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords were elected to the Virginia legislature. 

“Americans across the country — in red, blue, and purple states — support reproductive freedom and candidates would be wise to make clear their commitment to ensuring every woman can make her own decisions about how, if, and when to raise a family,” NARAL Pro-Choice, which endorsed Beshear, wrote in a memo Tuesday night.

At the local level in Pennsylvania, Democrats wiped out Republicans on the Delaware County Council, giving the party control of the council for the first time ever. They also flipped the Bucks County Board of Commissioners, which the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee highlighted as a sign of trouble for GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, one of only two Republicans running for reelection in a district Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. 

Democrats lost legislative seats in New Jersey, but Perez said the party was excited about municipal victories and optimistic about unseating the last GOP congressman in the state, 4th District Rep. Chris Smith, who won reelection last year by 12 points in a district Trump carried by 15 points.  

Perez touted the success of the Democratic Data Exchange, a new data sharing initiative started this year to help the national party, state parties and some outside groups share information. He said the DNC purchased 110 million cell phone numbers last year to give to state parties.   

Messaging 

Democrats are interpreting Tuesday’s wins as a sign they can campaign on kitchen table issues, while still pursuing an investigation into the president in Washington.

“Democrats can walk and chew gum,” Perez said. “Democrats have a Constitutional obligation to pursue this investigation. And I think the American people, if you look at the polling, the more people learn about this — this is a straightforward abuse-of-power case.”

But in Kentucky, Beshear largely stayed away from impeachment as an issue while Bevin sought to use it to fire up Republican voters to use him to send a message of support for Trump to Washington Democrats. If it’s true that helped him come from far behind to within a point of winning, that’s a tactic GOP candidates will use around the country next year.

Democrats, meanwhile, say Beshear did as well as he did by focusing on health care and education, issues that helped flip the House blue last year.

“We saw last night in Kentucky, Virginia and races across the country what happens when strong candidates run campaigns focused on health care and the issues that matter most to voters,” Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement Wednesday morning.

Democratic presidential candidates on different ends of the ideological spectrum, meanwhile, pointed to the same results Tuesday as proof their competing approaches would win voter support in 2020. 

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a darling of the far left running for the Democratic presidential nomination, congratulated down-ballot candidates who she said will bring “big structural change.” The more moderate Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, another presidential candidate, disagreed.

“Voters just told us what they are looking for in their elected leaders, and it’s not empty promises of free stuff or Medicare for All,” Bennet said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “If we ignore this, we risk everything in 2020.” 

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