clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Swing-state senators are hugging close to Trump despite 2019 election losses

Republicans say they aren’t worried after two Trump-backed candidates lost in Kentucky and Louisiana.

Senator Thom Tillis talking to reporters in a Capitol building hallway.
US Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) talks to reporters after a vote at the Capitol on November 30, 2017, in Washington, DC. 
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In the last month, Republicans lost two of three governor’s races that took place in solidly conservative states — despite tying themselves closely to President Donald Trump.

But vulnerable Republican senators who might be thinking of using the same strategy in 2020 don’t seem worried.

“I think President Trump does a good job energizing the base, which is how he got elected in unlikely battleground states,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), a lawmaker facing a tight reelection contest, told Vox.

This fall, Trump campaigned heavily for both Kentucky Gov. Mike Bevin, who was defeated by Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear in early November, and businessman Eddie Rispone, who more recently lost his challenge to Democrat John Bel Edwards. “You got to give me a big win, please, okay?” he recently said in Louisiana.

Voters didn’t.

These losses have prompted questions of whether Trump’s endorsement — in states that went for the president by 30 points and 20 points, respectively — has become less effective than it once was. It’s an issue that could have major implications for 2020, when a slew of Republican senators will be playing defense in swing states like Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina, even as Trump campaigns in these same places.

Trump alluded to the potential message a Republican defeat could send in Bevin’s race. “If you win, they are going to make it like, ho-hum. And if you lose, they are going to say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world,” he said.

While both losses reflect poorly on the president, three Republican senators in upcoming 2020 battleground states told Vox they didn’t see it as signaling Trump’s waning influence. “I think the press is reading way too much into those two races,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who emphasized that specific factors in both states contributed to Republican losses. Both Sens. Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Tillis agreed.

Ultimately, Bevin’s and Rispone’s defeats, particularly coupled with Democrats’ sweep in Virginia, aren’t good signs for Trump or the Republican Party — though they can’t completely be chalked up to the efficacy of his endorsement, experts tell Vox. What they do show is that while Trump’s endorsement might fire up the Republican base, it can similarly energize Democrats who’ve turned out in opposition.

There were specific reasons Democrats won in Louisiana and Kentucky, but neither outcome looks good for the president

A deep-seated dislike for Bevin from the electorate — he’s one of the most unpopular governors in the country — coupled with a message centered heavily on cutting social programs like Medicaid and teacher pensions were among the factors that ultimately led to his defeat, Vox’s Tara Golshan writes. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, Democrat John Bel Edwards proved to be an especially formidable candidate given his anti-abortion and pro-gun stances.

Collins argued that these variables were major factors in Republicans’ gubernatorial losses. “If you look at Kentucky, all the down-ballot races were won overwhelmingly by Republicans. This was a governor who was personally unpopular, who had alienated school teachers, for example,” she said. “When you look at Louisiana, again, a very conservative Democrat who signed into law a very strict anti-abortion law that’s pending before the Supreme Court now.”

Although there were specific circumstances in both states that fueled Democratic victories, Trump’s engagement in these races was also seen as tied to higher Democratic voter turnout.

“The endorsement can be helpful, especially for incumbents looking to avoid primaries. What is less effective is Trump’s ability to drive turnout,” said Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy. “Unlike 2018, the pre-election rallies seem to energize Democrats more than Republicans. I suspect there will be less demand for his time next year.”

John Miles Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball noted that Democrats over-performed the results they saw in the 2015 governor’s races, specifically in places that Trump visited in both Louisiana and Kentucky. In Louisiana, for example, Edwards won the precinct where Trump did his final campaign rally, a place he lost in 2015.

Trump’s backing could still help Republicans in several conservative states. It could hurt others in swing states.

The 2019 elections offer some indicators of what to expect in 2020, particularly in statewide races for the Senate.

Despite Bevin’s loss in Kentucky, Trump’s endorsement is still set to carry weight in Republican strongholds, where he remains popular, though it probably won’t do much good in swing states that have soured on him.

“Trump’s endorsement is still useful, to me, in states that voted strongly for Trump in 2016 and are likely to do so in 2020,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “How useful these rallies and endorsements are is an open question, but if they do help, red states are where one might expect them to assist Republican candidates.”

States where his support may be less helpful or detrimental include places like Colorado, where Sen. Cory Gardner is up for a tough reelection fight and Trump’s approval rating has continued to slide. Lawmakers in other swing states where Trump will be headed for his own presidential rallies might also have a tougher needle to thread.

“Trump will be campaigning for himself in states like Maine, North Carolina, Arizona, and Iowa. It will be interesting to see how much the Republican senators in those states embrace Trump and campaign with him,” says Kondik.

Tillis, a Republican in one of the most vulnerable Senate seats, said he still found Trump’s endorsement important going into his upcoming 2020 race. The first-term senator experienced major fallout when he broke with the president earlier this year on his declaration of a national emergency to build his border wall, a move that quickly prompted threats of a primary challenge. Tillis later reversed course.

Ernst, too, emphasized that an endorsement would resonate with constituents in her state. “What I’m hearing from farmers, they are all so supportive of the president and what he’s been able to do with trade and China, and pushing back on them,” she said. “They see someone who’s fighting for them and I appreciate his support.”

Collins, meanwhile, offered a slightly different take. “I run my own races and don’t rely on endorsements,” she said.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.