Odd-year elections in Louisiana, Kentucky and Virginia have let Democrats expand their footprint in Southern states where Republicans dominated not long ago.
Those outcomes hardly predict national 2020 results: President Donald Trump isn’t suddenly at risk of losing Louisiana because Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards got re-elected Saturday.
And the story wasn’t all good for Democrats: They came up short in Mississippi, where Republicans won the governorship and picked up the last remaining statewide office that had been held by a Democrat.
But there are lessons for Democrats and Republicans as the political focus shifts to presidential and congressional elections next November.
Trump era turnout is uniformly high, but Dems benefit more
Huge turnouts started with Virginia’s statewide elections in 2017 and continued through the 2018 midterms and the 2019 odd-year slate. More than 1.5 million Louisianans voted Saturday, an increase of about 385,000 votes over the 2015 governor’s race.
Edwards’ 40,000-vote victory margin can be attributed to his uptick of support in East Baton Rouge and Orleans Parishes — two of the most concentrated centers of the state’s black population, and home to many of the college-educated white women who have trended away from Republicans in the Trump era. Edwards got about 66,000 more votes out of those parishes Saturday than in 2015.
“The motivating factor that Trump is in the African American communities and in the suburbs among white and black women is strong,” said Bob Mann, a Louisiana State University professor and former aide to many Democratic elected officials.
Mary-Patricia Wray, a political consultant for Edwards’ 2015 race, said the re-election campaign made a concerted outreach to local black leaders and their constituents: “It’s maybe something that’s a very simple concept, but it’s something that Democrats got really wrong in 2016.”
In Mississippi, though, Democrats had little shot in the governor’s race since nominee Jim Hood failed to generate the enthusiasm that Edwards managed in Louisiana.
The suburban shift is everywhere
Suburban New Orleans isn’t the same as suburban Philadelphia, Chicago or Los Angeles, metro areas that fueled Democrats’ midterm House takeover. And John Bel Edwards — an anti-abortion Catholic and gun-loving West Point graduate — wouldn’t top Democrats’ ticket in many states. But like more conventional Democrats elsewhere, Edwards benefited from a suburban shift.
He won Jefferson Parish, the most populous of the suburban New Orleans parishes, with nearly 60% of the vote. Still, it’s hard to measure Edwards’ crossover appeal. He got about 98% percent of Hillary Clinton’s Jefferson Parish vote total (73,670) against Trump. Republican Eddie Rispone managed just 54% of Trump’s 100,398.
Likewise, Andy Beshear posted stark shifts over Republican incumbent Matt Bevin in Louisville suburbs and metro Lexington in winning the Kentucky governor’s race. The trend even showed up in Republicans’ unusually slim victory in the Mississippi governor’s race, with Democrats narrowing the usual GOP advantage outside Jackson and south of Memphis, Tennessee.
Republican states won’t flip because of the trend. But Virginia illustrates what happens when the suburbs move in a state that’s already a battleground: Democrats in January will control both the executive and legislative branches in Richmond for the first time in more than 20 years.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres noted that governor's race for both parties can buck usual partisan leanings. (Massachusetts and Maryland have popular Republican governors.) “That said,” Ayres explained, “the basic trends with Republicans’ increasing strength in rural areas and small towns and Democrats' increasing strength in urban and suburban areas is a very consistent trend, and frankly a very concerning trend if you’re a Republican.”
Democrats can win talking health care
Louisiana’s Edwards and Kentucky’s Beshear avoided delving directly into the Democratic presidential primary split between progressives advocating a single-payer government insurance system (“Medicare for All”) and those wanting to add a government insurance plan to the Affordable Care Act exchanges (the “public option” plan).
But they didn’t run away from health care entirely. Edwards’ campaigned as the governor who extended health insurance to 450,000 Louisianans by expanding Medicaid under the 2010 health care law, just as he promised upon first running in 2015. Beshear ran against a Republican incumbent, Matt Bevin, who tried to dismantle the Medicaid expansion that Beshear’s father oversaw after the Affordable Care Act passed.
Neither Democrat played up the Affordable Care Act link. But they didn’t have to. They effectively took a center-left, mainstream liberal position to expand coverage within the existing system. And voters rewarded them for it — or at least didn’t punish them.
The approach aligns them with most of the House freshmen who helped Democrats flip more than three dozen GOP-held seats in 2018 after Republicans spent eight years trying to gut the 2010 overhaul.
“Health care is kind of the Holy Grail of politics right now,” said Zac McCrary, Edwards’ lead pollster. “It enthuses the Democratic base. It can persuade independents.” But the way Democrats talk about it matters, McCrary said: “Strengthening, protecting, improving the ACA, that’s a much better battleground than scrapping the ACA and starting from scratch.”
GOP's 'socialism' and 'radical' attacks don't always stick
Republicans tried to cast Edwards as “radical” and in the only debate, Rispone tried to make hay of Edwards’ support for Clinton in 2016. “The point is when we get the next wacko, the socialist out there that we have running for president, he’s going to support that person over Donald Trump again,” Rispone said.
But Edwards withstood the attacks — including ads and mail pieces trying to associate him with national Democrats unpopular in Louisiana. He touted his own brand as a former Army Ranger, family man, devout Catholic, avid outdoorsman.
"You're not talking about me. You're talking about some generic Democrat that's in your mind,” he shot back at Rispone.
But, pollster McCrary said, Edwards didn’t run from being a Democrat. “He ran TV adds talking about schools and education, and not a single one talking about abortion or guns,” McCrary said. “Voters were comfortable with who he is, and they listened to him when he focused on Democratic issues that resonate with voters everywhere, even in the Deep South.”
Barrow reported from Atlanta.