Editor’s Note: Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator, a resident fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard University and former communications director for Ted Cruz for President. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Tuesday’s elections proved to be a good night for Democrats, a bad night for an unpopular governor, and a teachable moment for President Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Key races in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Virginia tested the political landscape one year out from the 2020 presidential election. Yet, before anyone labels this as a referendum on President Trump, remember, he was not on the ballot, and Democrats were on a mission to make inroads in suburbia.
The gubernatorial race in Kentucky is shaping up to be a big win for Democrats in what should have been a smooth GOP victory. Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear almost certainly and by a razor-thin margin unseated Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. But a win’s a win.
Voters clearly responded to Beshear’s campaign, which he described on election night as a fight for “the lost, the lonely and the left behind.”
Beshear ran up the numbers in urban areas – Lexington, Louisville and Bowling Green – yet he also had tremendous support in suburban areas in which Republicans typically thrive.
This was Bevin’s race to lose, and he did it all by himself, though he’s still not conceding. In a red state, the GOP governor had fought the teachers unions and Republican members of the state legislature and had pushed unpopular work requirements for Medicaid. In short, he was not popular in Kentucky, as was evident on election night.
On the other hand, Trump had strong support in Kentucky; he won the state by 30 percentage points in 2016.
For that reason, it was a Hail Mary pass for him to fly into Kentucky on election eve, defibrillator in hand, to revive the sitting governor’s campaign. Trump did rally the GOP troops, just not enough. It’s worth noting that Trump’s support did seem to help other Republican candidates who won statewide races Tuesday in Kentucky, including Attorney General-elect Daniel Cameron. He will be the first black attorney general in Kentucky’s history and the first Republican in that seat since 1948.
In Mississippi, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves won the gubernatorial race by nearly 6 points over Democratic state Attorney General Jim Hood. That’s not a surprise; Mississippi has not elected a Democratic governor in 20 years. Just to be safe, President Trump held a rally Friday in Tupelo to motivate voters in support of Reeves. Despite that, the suburban trend continued, as Reeves did win Republican-stronghold counties outside Jackson, Mississippi, but with narrower margins than in years past.
Democrats in Virginia saw an opportunity to seize on the suburbs and took it. For the first time in over 20 years, Democrats have control of the state House and Senate, as well as the governor’s office. Given that Northern Virginia is virtually a suburb of the swamps of Washington, it’s safe to say that this is a heavily Democratic area, fueled by opposition to President Trump.
This puts Democrats in a position to drive their progressive agenda in the state, including on gun control and increasing the minimum wage. More importantly, with control of the House and Senate, Democrats will control redrawing of election district lines.
The Virginia election results are not unexpected, Virginia is a blue state, turning bluer every day. Democrats can thank suburban voters, who clearly turned out this week in full force at the polls.
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Overall, the elections in Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia are not as much a referendum on Trump as a wake-up call to his reelection campaign: Suburbs are the new Florida, so focus on suburbia.
Democrats took advantage of the fact that Trump is not on the ballot. The GOP has 12 months to turn these lessons learned into action items for next November, when the election truly will be a referendum on President Trump.