Phil Cox in POLITICO: Trump Dives into Red-state Races to Reverse Impeachment Slump

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Alex Isenstadt, POLITICO

October 22, 2019

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Donald Trump is going all-in on a trio of Southern governor’s races in November, gambling that a clean sweep will help him regain his political footing at the most perilous moment of his presidency.

Trump is expected to barnstorm Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana over the next few weeks while dispatching prominent supporters to help in each contest. And Vice President Mike Pence is planning a bus tour through Eastern Kentucky, a pivotal area on the state’s political map that could decide the fate of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

Trump badly needs a boost right now, and the White House sees the elections in the conservative states as the best near-term hope of achieving it. With the impeachment inquiry intensifying and congressional Republicans increasingly vocal in their criticism of the president, the elections give Trump the opportunity to demonstrate his political strength and shift a narrative that’s turned sharply against him.
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But the offensive isn’t without risk: Though all three races are in Trump-friendly states, Democrats have a decent shot in at least two of them. A Republican loss in any of the elections could give the president’s detractors ammunition to argue he’s politically weakened as he heads into a treacherous 2020 campaign.

“Mississippi, Kentucky, and Louisiana are states where Republicans can win races for governor. Those would be big momentum wins for President Trump heading into 2020, but in the unlikely event we lose in all those states it would clearly be a troubling sign that the president would have to overcome,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member and the nephew of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Behind the scenes, Trump has been quizzing aides and allies on the three contests and been in touch with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about Bevin’s reelection fight. He also speaks regularly with Bevin, a longtime ally and frequent visitor to the White House.

The Trump political operation is mobilizing. The RNC, which works closely with the president’s team, is expected to spend millions on a get-out-the-vote effort across the three battlegrounds. Chris Carr, the Trump campaign’s political director and a Louisiana native, has become increasingly involved in the state’s gubernatorial contest.

Yet none is a sure bet for the president. Republicans face formidable candidates in each state — and especially in Louisiana, where popular Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is seeking reelection. Bevin is one of the least popular governors in the country. And in Mississippi, Republican nominee Tate Reeves, the state’s lieutenant governor, has been criticized for his lackluster campaign skills and is recovering from an unexpectedly tough primary.

Republicans have never won all three states in the same year, despite the conservative tilt of each.

The White House has calculated that Trump is likely to take the brunt of the blame for a loss whether or not he campaigns. So he’s decided to jump in head-first so he can take the credit if Republicans win.

Trump is popular in all three states, and his team is convinced he can pull each Republican candidate over the finish line. In Mississippi, the president is so well-liked that the Democratic candidate, state Attorney General Jim Hood, has made a Trump-like promise to “ drain the swamp.”

The president is already talking up his role in positive developments. After Edwards failed to hit 50 percent in the Oct. 12 primary and was forced into a November runoff, Trump claimed the Louisiana Democrat’s popularity had been driven down because he had “explained what a bad job the Governor was doing.”

“The president — and his base — enjoys his boasting during these ‘winning’ narrative opportunities. Maybe that helps keep the national GOP base energized heading into the holidays, a likely prolonged impeachment slog, and peak Democratic presidential primary season,” said Nick Everhart, a Republican strategist who has worked on an array of governor’s races. “Any morsel to take credit and feed the base is important for enthusiasm and fundraising over the coming months.”

The swing will also enable the president to do something he relishes: attack his rivals before a crowd of adoring supporters. During a rally in Louisiana earlier this month, he accused Democrats of pursuing an “unconstitutional, bullshit impeachment.”

“I tend to agree that getting him out there is the correct posture for them,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican strategist who served as a top political aide in George W. Bush’s White House. “Being in a crouch, hiding under the desk — I think that would be a bad sign.”

Republicans have been worried about the races for months but have grown optimistic in recent weeks. They believe the House Democratic-led impeachment push has reinvigorated conservative voters who dominate each state. Recently completed voter modeling conducted by the RNC in Kentucky, for instance, showed Bevin leading by 3 percentage points. He had trailed Democratic state Attorney General Andy Beshear since April in the committee’s previous findings in the race.

Each of the Republican candidates is seizing on impeachment. Bevin recently held a news conference in front of the state Capitol to call on Beshear to say whether he supports impeachment. Louisiana’s Republican nominee, businessman Eddie Rispone, cut a web video in which he accused Edwards of being part of a Democratic Party “witch hunt.” Reeves claimed on T witter that Hood once supported impeachment-backer Hillary Clinton.

“I think there is some evidence that impeachment has helped increase Republican intensity. And in low turnout races, which is what we have, that is incredibly important,” said Phil Cox, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

Much of the party’s focus is on saving Bevin. Trump attended a fundraiser for Bevin in Kentucky in August, the only time this year the president has raised money for a candidate other than himself. Pence has appeared with Bevin, as has Donald Trump Jr. Republican groups are poised to spend more than $3 million on TV ads during the final weeks of the race, over $700,000 more than what Democrats plan to drop.

The all-out effort to lift Bevin was encouraged by McConnell, a former Bevin rival who is also up for reelection next year. In conversations with Trump and RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, the Senate GOP leader lobbied for resources to be directed to the Kentucky race and made the case it would get outsize attention because it was one of the few high-profile elections this year.

Democrats are also investing heavily in the three races. But with time running out, Democrats are trying to tamp down expectations for themselves, while putting the onus on Republicans.

“These are three deep-red areas,” Democratic Governors Association spokesman David Turner said, “that should be easy layups for Republicans.”