NEW YORK — Democrats won control of both houses of the Virginia legislature for the first time in a generation Tuesday and were on track to claim another big prize, the governor’s race in deep-red Kentucky, as Republicans struggled to overcome President Trump’s growing unpopularity in suburbs they once controlled.
In capturing the legislature in Virginia, Democrats now have full control of the state government. That clears the way for Governor Ralph S. Northam, who was nearly driven from office earlier this year, to pass measures tightening access to guns and raising the minimum wage. Those bills have been stymied by legislative Republicans.
In Kentucky, the race for governor between the Republican incumbent, Matt Bevin, and the Democratic challenger, Attorney General Andy Beshear, was too close to call.
Beshear captured 49.2 percent of the vote while Bevin won 48.9 percent and was leading by about 4,500 votes, the Associated Press reported. The governor, however, did not concede, asserting to supporters that “there have been more than a few irregularities,” without offering specifics.
Beshear claimed victory and said he expected Bevin “will honor the election that was held tonight.”
A governor’s race in Mississippi was also drawing national attention Tuesday. With two-thirds of precincts reporting, Republican nominee Tate Reeves led Democrat Jim Hood by almost 8 percentage points, according to the Associated Press. Trump won Mississippi by 28 points three years ago.
New Jersey also held a series of legislative races.
Coming one year before the presidential election, the state and local races reflected the country’s increasingly contentious politics and the widening rural-urban divide.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in Kentucky, where Beshear ran far better than national Democrats in the state’s lightly-populated counties but gained a lead thanks in large part to his overwhelming strength in the state’s cities and suburbs.
That strong performance demonstrated Trump’s popularity alone is insufficient for Republicans, even in one of the most conservative regions in the country. Bevin and national GOP groups, grasping for ways to overcome the governor’s deep unpopularity, sought to turn the election into a referendum on Trump and the impeachment inquiry.
And the president himself stood alongside Bevin on Monday night in Lexington to argue that, while the combative governor is “a pain in the ass,” his defeat would send “a really bad message” beyond Kentucky’s borders.
But three years after handing the president a 30-point victory, Kentucky’s voters appeared to put their displeasure with the conservative Bevin, his controversial policies, and even more controversial personality, over their partisan leanings and support for Trump.
Beshear, a 41-year-old moderate whose father preceded Bevin in the governor’s mansion, sidestepped questions about Trump and impeachment while keeping his distance from national Democrats. He focused squarely on Bevin’s efforts to cut health care and overhaul the state’s pension program while drawing attention to the governor’s string of incendiary remarks, including one that suggested striking teachers had left children vulnerable to molestation.
In Virginia, the only Southern state Trump lost, it was Republicans who were distancing themselves from their national party and a president who has alienated the suburban voters they needed to retain control of the state legislature. While the president stayed away from Virginia, despite its proximity to the White House, every major Democratic presidential hopeful was welcomed with open arms to campaign with the party’s candidates in a state that has not elected a statewide Republican in a decade.
In all four states, television commercials and campaign mailers were filled with mentions of Trump (positively and negatively) as well as of national Democratic leaders such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the so-called Squad of freshman House Democrats (negatively).
And the same hot-button issues that have consumed a gridlocked Washington in recent years have also played a central role in races that in the past would have been dominated by talk of taxes, transit, and education.
In Mississippi and Kentucky, the Republicans targeted the Democrats with ads portraying them as soft on illegal immigration; in Virginia, Democrats accused the Republicans of opposing gun control because of their fealty to the National Rifle Association.