Phil Cox in The Hill: GOP Seeks Helping Hand from Trump in 2019 Governor Races

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Reid Wilson, The Hill

September 11, 2019

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Republicans running for governor this year are turning to President Trump — and familiar Democratic boogeymen — to carry them over the finish line in Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana, three of the most conservative states in the country.

In all three states, Trump is likely to be an asset to Republicans. He won Kentucky’s electoral votes with 62 percent of the vote in 2016, and he scored about 58 percent in both Mississippi and Louisiana.

The Republican gubernatorial nominees this year will need the help. Polls show Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) running virtually even with Attorney General Andy Beshear (D). In Mississippi, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) was forced into a runoff and now faces a spirited challenge from Attorney General Jim Hood (D). And two Republicans in Louisiana are running far behind Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) ahead of an Oct. 12 jungle primary.

The Republican nominees in Kentucky and Mississippi have already signaled to the Trump team that they want to campaign alongside the president, according to sources close to both campaigns. The two Louisiana Republicans are also likely to ask for help, though any rally would come after the primary.

“Louisiana loves President Trump, and President Trump loves Louisiana,” said Rep. Ralph Abraham, one of the two Republicans seeking to oust Edwards. “Louisianans, they just want the same direction that President Trump has taken the country.”

Trump’s campaign declined to comment on potential political plans later this year. He has already held a fundraiser for Bevin last month in Louisville.

While the three states up for grabs this year are ruby red, voters tend to view gubernatorial contests separately from federal elections, giving minority parties a decent chance to win even in states where their candidates ordinarily fall well short. Red states like Kansas and Montana have Democratic governors; blue states like Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont are run by Republican governors.

“While federal races are traditionally viewed through the lens of national politics and ideology, governor’s races tend to be more localized, with voters looking to candidates to provide practical, real-world solutions to improve schools, roads and public safety,” said Phil Cox, a former executive director at the Republican Governors Association. “Candidates who strike the right tone and run campaigns of real substance have the ability to overcome party identification and buck national trends.”

The Republican candidates have worked hard to nationalize all three races. Reeves compares Hood to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). In Louisiana, both Republican contenders have criticized Edwards’s move to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

“John Bel Edwards, he embraces the national Democrats, the same policies that they embrace,” Abraham said. “He supported Obama, he supported Hillary Clinton, he’ll be supporting another Democrat, whoever the presidential ticket is in 2020.”

“The state of Louisiana is much better off than it was four years ago when Gov. Edwards took office, and I think folks here are fully aware of how far the state has come,” said Richard Carbo, Edwards’s campaign spokesman. “While the congressman might want to talk about national issues, Gov. Edwards is focusing on issues that are important to the people of Louisiana.”

Bevin, who has worked particularly hard to tie himself to Trump, lumps Beshear in with Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.

“While Andy Beshear brags about voting for Hillary Clinton, Gov. Bevin continues to partner with President Trump to create over 55,000 jobs, and now we have the lowest unemployment in Kentucky history,” Bevin’s campaign manager, Davis Paine, told The Hill in an email.

While Trump is a political positive for Republicans, his presence also gives Democrats some measure of cover. They do not have to answer for a Democratic president who would certainly be unpopular in their home states.

“It’s a little easier to make these races localized when there’s not a Democratic president in office,” said Jared Leopold, a former top official at the Democratic Governors Association.

The three Democrats running this year are attempting to replicate strategies that won elections for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) in 2018, focusing on local issues to the near-total exclusion of national issues.

“You want better schools, better health care, roads that don’t destroy the front end of your vehicle and tax breaks for working folks. As governor, my tailgate will be open — not to special interests, but to you,” Hood says in his latest advertisement.

Beshear has attacked Bevin over his ongoing feud with the state’s public school teachers. In his latest advertisement, Beshear, a public school graduate himself, warns about the fallout from Bevin’s proposed cuts to public education.

“Imagine having just one school in your community, and the lights are turned off forever,” Beshear’s running mate, Jacqueline Coleman, says. Bevin called the ad “lies” and “distortion.”

Both parties face unusual complicating factors.

In Mississippi, national Democrats have sued over an unusual state law that requires a gubernatorial candidate to win a majority of the vote in a majority of state legislative districts in order to win election. If the candidate who wins the most votes does not win a majority of legislative districts, the state House picks the next governor; Republicans hold 72 of 122 seats in the state House.

In Louisiana, Edwards can avoid a runoff election if he takes a majority of the vote on Oct. 12. Only one poll has shown Edwards over 50 percent, and many critics pointed to an unusual methodology that pollster used. Both Democrats and Republicans say internal polling has Edwards below 50. If he is forced into a runoff, history is not on his side: No governor has ever won reelection when forced into a runoff.

On the Republican side, acrimonious primaries have left deep scars. Bevin won just 52 percent of the vote in his own primary, and his chief rival, state Rep. Robert Goforth (R), has not endorsed him. Reeves won a runoff against former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller (R), who has also declined to back the winner. And the two Louisiana Republicans, Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone, are still fighting for the right to face Edwards.