Congressman Mark Pocan, the Town of Vermont Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is offering sound advice to Republicans who are starting to fret about the 2020 elections. “Perhaps,” Pocan suggested, “GOP candidates could ask the president to endorse their opponents instead of themselves.”
It is doubtful that Republicans will take much counsel from Pocan. But there is no reason to believe that the savvy Democratic strategist is insincere in suggesting that “with his recent track record in red states,” some GOP distancing from Donald Trump “might deliver better results.”
Trump has never been a political dynamo. The majority of Americans rejected his 2016 bid. Democrat Hillary Clinton beat him by 2.9 million votes. Only narrow pluralities over Clinton in three states — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — gave Trump the advantage he needed in the Electoral College.
Since taking office, however, Trump has been an anchor on Republican electoral prospects. In the November 2017 off-year elections, the GOP lost the governorship of New Jersey — after eight years of Chris Christie — and every statewide office in Virginia. The party also suffered historic setbacks in contests for the Virginia legislature. And a pattern of results from battleground states indicated that Republicans were losing their grip on suburban areas around major cities such as Philadelphia. A month later, in December 2017, Doug Jones became the first Democrat to win an Alabama U.S. Senate election since 1990.
In the November 2018 midterm elections, Democrats won control of the U.S. House for the first time since 2008 and grabbed seven governorships from the GOP — unseating incumbents in Wisconsin and Illinois, and winning open seats in Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Kansas.
Republicans suffered some of their most serious setbacks in states where Trump took an active interest in “helping” the ticket. In the red state of Kansas, the president was an enthusiastic backer of Republican gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach, who lost by five points. In Wisconsin, Trump campaigned to re-elect Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans. It didn’t work. Wisconsin Democrats won every statewide contest, electing a governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state treasurer, secretary of state and U.S. senator.
The down-ballot news was even worse for Republicans in 2018. As Emily’s List noted, “(Democrats) flipped seven state legislative chambers to Democratic control, defended Democratic majorities in seven legislative chambers, broke the Republican supermajority in four chambers, and gained new Democratic supermajorities in five chambers.” Republicans lost hundreds of legislative seats, many in suburban and rural areas with long traditions of voting Republican, many in southern and western red states.
By the time the 2019 off-year elections rolled around, it was almost too much to ask that Democrats would keep gaining with another “blue-wave” election. The map was hard — with gubernatorial contests only in southern and border states where Trump had won big in 2016. And, in 2019, Trump thought he had a winning issue: the decision of House Democrats to open an impeachment inquiry. The president went all-in this fall and produced … another blue wave.
Democrats grabbed both houses of the Virginia legislature. They ran up their numbers in suburban cities and counties in states such as Indiana and Pennsylvania. They jumped from 32 percent of the vote for governor of Mississippi in 2015 to 47 percent in 2019. And in Kentucky, a state Trump won by 30 points in 2016 and where Trump in 2019 had begged voters to send an anti-impeachment message by re-electing Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, Democrat Matt Beshear turned Bevin out of office.
Running on a pro-choice, pro-union, pro-public schools platform, Beshear flipped more than 20 Kentucky counties — most of them in rural areas Trump had won in 2016. That was a devastating loss for the president, who tried to prove he was still useful for Republicans by going all-in on the last major race of the year. That was the contest for the governorship of Louisiana, a state the president carried by 20 points in 2016.
Acknowledging the damage done by the Kentucky result, the desperate president implored Louisianans to renew his brand. “So, Trump took a loss,” he announced. “So, you got to give me a big win, please. OK? OK?”
Trump gave Louisiana Republicans everything he had. The increasingly feverish president labeled Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who blends social conservatism with support for Medicaid expansion and a pro-public schools agenda, as a “radical liberal.” The president recorded robocalls and videos begging for a big Republican vote. He issued a steady stream of all-caps, exclamation-mark-heavy tweets, with messages like, “This Saturday, the eyes of history are looking at the people of Louisiana. If you want to defend your values, your jobs, and your freedom, then you need to REPLACE Radical Liberal John Bel Edwards …” Then he jetted into the state on Thursday night with a message that the last big vote of 2019 was a referendum on impeachment and what remains of his presidency. “In two days, I really need you, but you really need you, to send a message to the corrupt Democrats in Washington,” ranted Trump. “They are corrupt. They are crazy, crazy.”
None of it worked. Edwards won with a solid 40,000-vote margin, flipping more than a dozen parishes Trump won in 2016.
Republicans and the D.C. pundit class tried to spin out excuses. Bevin was unpopular, they announced, while Edwards wasn’t really the radical liberal the president said. But after three years of making excuses for blue-wave elections, they sounded ridiculous.
Pocan’s right. Trump is breaking the Republican brand, even in the red states.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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