Both Democrats and Republicans are still trying to come to grips with last week’s election results in Virginia.
For the current generation of Democrats, this is an entirely new experience to have control of both the governorship and the General Assembly. The last time that happened was 1993 when Doug Wilder was governor, and the Democrats he had to contend with in the legislature were quite different from the ones who will be taking their seats in January.
For Republicans, the question is whether the suburbs are irretrievably lost in a political realignment or a temporary phenomenon of the Donald Trump era.
The most fascinating election results last week, though, weren’t from Virginia, they were next door in Kentucky where Democrat Andy Beshear appears to have ousted Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
There are two ways to look at the Kentucky results.
The Democratic view: There’s no way a Democrat should be winning in Kentucky, but Bevin was a Trump-like governor so this is really a repudiation of Trump. After all, Trump himself told Bevin at a rally: “If you lose, they are going to say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. You can’t let that happen.”
The Republican view: Bevin was a uniquely unpopular governor — literally, the most unpopular governor in the country, according to polls. All the other Republicans won in Kentucky but not even Trump is popular enough there to rescue Bevin. Plus, Beshear was something of a name-brand: His father was a popular (and moderate) governor some years back, so you had the best possible Democrat running against the worst possible Republican, and the Republican still barely lost.
We’re curious about something else, though: How Beshear appears to have won, because the shape of his victory has implications on this side of the state line.
Beshear won big in the state’s two biggest metros — the counties around Louisville and Lexington. That’s no surprise. As we’ve seen in Virginia, suburbs are rapidly realigning into the Democratic column. Hillary Clinton carried both Jefferson County (Louisville) and Fayette County (Lexington) in 2016, just not by the margins Beshear did. Also, those were the only places she won in Kentucky. Beshear won some other places, though, and that’s where things get a lot more interesting. He carried 21 other counties —11 of them rural counties in eastern Kentucky that are officially designated part of Appalachia. These Appalachian counties — like their counterparts on the Virginia side — were all counties that once voted reliably Democratic but over time started drifting into the Republican column and have now become even more solidly Republican than they once were Democratic. How did Beshear win them? And what lessons — if any —does this hold for Virginia? Before we attempt to answer that, let’s look more closely at the actual results in those 11 Appalachian counties Beshear carried. His percentage of the vote there ranged from 49.4% in Knott and Nicholas counties (it was a three-way race, hence the plurality) to 58% in Rowan County and 59% in Elliott County.
For comparison purposes, Hillary Clinton’s vote in these counties was consistently in the 20% range (hitting a low of 21.6% in Knott County) with the exception of Rowan County, where she polled 37.3%.
Beshear took the Democratic share of the vote from the 20% range into the majority range in nine of those 11 Appalachian counties he eventually won — with pluralities in the other two. There were lots of Appalachian counties he still lost, but from our perspective in Virginia, it’s amazing that he won anything in that part of the state. In the corresponding part of Virginia, Clinton didn’t win anything west of Radford. But neither did Beshear’s Virginia’s counterpart, Ralph Northam, in his 2017 race for governor. Nor did Democrat Tim Kaine in his 2018 U.S. Senate race.
In Virginia, top Democrats have basically given up on rural Virginia in general, and Southwest Virginia in particular. Northam’s best county in Southwest Virginia was Floyd County at 35% and his support faded rapidly with each county westward; in some counties in far Southwest Virginia, he polled only in the teens (down to 16.4% in Tazewell County). Kaine did somewhat better but not by much. He started at 36.8% in Floyd County and dropped to 20.5% in Bland County. Yet somehow Beshear was able to win majorities in comparable counties in Kentucky. How?
For the answer, let’s turn to David Frum — a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, so not exactly a fire-breathing socialist. Nonetheless, Republicans won’t like his answer: Obamacare. Here’s what Frum wrote in The Atlantic magazine: “No state saw a more dramatic improvement in its health-care-insurance enrollment under the Affordable Care Act than Kentucky. And no part of Kentucky benefited more than the southeast from the ACA . . . As the benefits flowed, Kentuckians — once staunchly opposed to Obamacare — came rather to appreciate the Affordable Care Act. By 2018, a plurality of Kentuckians — 44% — approved of the ACA. Matt Bevin made it his top priority as governor to shred the ACA in Kentucky. He shifted 31,000 people off Medicaid and S-Chip, the state children’s health-insurance plan. He added work requirements for Medicaid, and other practical barriers to coverage.”
According to Frum’s analysis, voters in Appalachian counties didn’t much cotton to that — and decided to vote for Beshear instead. Frum warns that this is “the true fire bell in the night for Trump and his party.” He writes: “The central idea of the Trump candidacy and the Trump presidency has been that Trump’s abnormal behavior could win just enough votes from culturally conservative whites to overcome the unpopularity of the Republican agenda. Kentucky tested that proposition — and proved it false.”
Does the Kentucky vote show a path for Democrats to make a comeback in Southwest Virginia? Not so fast. It was Republican legislators from Southwest Virginia who were instrumental in Virginia expanding Medicaid, and there’s no threat from Richmond to take it away. Still, Republicans might want to wonder about this: Trump promised to bring back King Coal, and every day the free market is waging a war on coal that’s more effective than anything Obama ever did. The innate cultural conservatism of Southwest Virginia probably will triumph over all else, but what if voters ever set that aside long enough to ask why their local economy still hasn’t been made great again? Kentucky just answered that question.