Tuesday elections: Americans vote their values, not the economy — and that's bad for Trump

“Donald Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world.” Who says? Actually, Donald Trump says: He said it Monday night at a rally in Lexington, Kentucky. He pointed at the news cameras and told his supporters, “If you lose, they will say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world,” adding, “You can’t let that happen to me.”

It happened. 

Democrat Andy Beshear defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin by a narrow margin (49.2 percent to 48.8 percent). Bevin refused to concede defeat, but there is no automatic recount provision under Kentucky law.

ADVERTISEMENT

As usual, Trump tried to make the election all about himself. That was not a bad idea in Kentucky, a state Trump carried by 30 points in 2016. Trump portrayed himself as a martyr, besieged by enemies who are trying to impeach and remove him. He implored his Kentucky supporters to rescue him.

“All politics is local,” former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill famously said. To Trump, all politics is personal.

Actually, one could argue that Trump’s personal plea did have an impact: It made the Kentucky race a lot closer than it might have been.

Bevin is just about the least popular governor in the country. He is a tea party activist with a brusque, abrasive manner that offends a lot of voters. As governor, Bevin had an epic confrontation with state workers and schoolteachers over pension funding. He trailed Beshear — the son of a former governor — in almost all the pre-election polls. Bevin’s embrace of President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE — and President Trump’s embrace of Bevin — probably helped the governor in an Appalachian state where coal is king and Trump is popular. But not enough.

Trump also held a campaign rally in Mississippi a few days before the gubernatorial election there. “Make no mistake,” he declared, “they are coming after the Republican Party and me because I’m fighting for you!” Mississippi is a solid Republican state. “I can’t believe this is a competitive race,” Trump told his supporters. The Republican candidate, Tate Reeves, did win the race for governor of Mississippi — but it wasn’t a blowout. He won 52 to 47 percent.

ADVERTISEMENT

President Trump did not hold any rallies in Virginia. That would have been crazy. He is not popular in Virginia. In Virginia, it was Democrats who nationalized the 2019 race for control of the state legislature. They tried to tie every Republican candidate to Trump. The Republicans’ response? Tim Hugo, the only Republican state lawmaker from Northern Virginia, told the Washington Post, “I’ve been called ‘Delegate Pothole’ and I’m O.K. with that. I’m just focused on local issues.” He lost.

Virginia can be described as two-thirds southern and one-third New Jersey. Northern Virginia — the Washington, D.C., suburbs — is one of the highest income areas of the country. It’s full of well-educated professionals and highly-skilled immigrants. And Democrats.

As a result, Virginia, where the capital of the Confederacy was located, is probably the least “southern” southern state. Virginia has a Democratic governor, two Democratic U.S. senators, seven Democrats and four Republicans in the House of Representatives — and now a Democratic state legislature.

Virginia used to be the most Republican state in the South. It voted Republican in 13 out of 14 presidential elections from 1952 to 2004 (all but 1964). In the last three presidential elections, Virginia went for the Democrat — twice for Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Debate gives Democrats a chance to focus on unaddressed issues of concern to black voters Is Joe Biden finished? MORE and in 2016, the only southern state that voted for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Harris rips Gabbard over Fox appearances during Obama years Steyer, Gabbard and Yang shut out of early minutes of Democratic debate MORE.

This year’s Virginia legislative election was intensely nationalized. Money poured in from all over the country. Candidates in some races for state legislative seats raised sums comparable to a congressional race. “Everytown for Gun Safety,” a gun control organization founded by former New York Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergBloomberg to spend millions on voter registration campaign 'Iowa Pete' poll exposes myth that Democrats are veering left The Hill's Morning Report - Wild Wednesday: Sondland testimony, Dem debate take center stage MORE, gave more than $2.5 million to Virginia Democrats.

ADVERTISEMENT

This year’s election in Virginia captures the political realignment that’s happening all over the country under Donald Trump. The key factor is education. Well-educated suburban voters are fleeing Trump’s Republican Party, which they see as being run by racists and know-nothings. Trump’s signature issues are social issues — immigration, guns, isolationism, protectionism, abortion, climate change. What’s on the agenda for Virginia’s newly empowered Democrats? Gun safety, protection of abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment for women, a minimum wage hike, laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, environmental protection.

The irony is that Republicans are not getting much benefit from what most voters see as a good economy. The Trump presidency may be good for their economic interests — but they’re not voting their economic interests. They’re voting their values. And Donald Trump offends their values.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).