Published 1:05 PM EST Nov 8, 2019
Tuesday’s elections in Kentucky will lead to a great deal of misreading and misapplication by political pundits.
For example, Andy Beshear’s victory means very little for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who, at the height of his appreciation among the conservative base, is facing an opponent further to the left than Beshear, and not to mention is one of the great campaigners in modern American history.
To add a second example, Bevin’s loss of two Northern Kentucky counties, traditional Republican strongholds, likely isn’t due to the erosion of suburban Republican voters. It almost certainly has more to do with Bevin’s inexplicably poor decision to announce support for tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge, the third rail of Northern Kentucky politics, six days before the election. Suburban erosion is a significant problem for Republicans nationally, but supporting tolls in Northern Kentucky six days before an election is a Hindenburg-level blunder. The rest of the Republican ticket performed expectantly well in those counties.
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The most crucial takeaway lies in urban areas.
Beshear’s victory over Bevin is mostly thanks to Louisville and Lexington, where he pulled off vote margins unlike anything ever seen in a statewide race in the commonwealth. Beshear’s near 100,000 vote victory in Jefferson County is more than 2.5 times the margin that Jack Conway won the county by in 2015. Beshear received 66% more votes than Conway. Unbelievably, it is just shy of the margin Conway won the county by in 2015 and the margin Steve Beshear won the county by in 2011 — combined.
The number of votes Beshear received in Jefferson County is more comparable to a presidential election than a gubernatorial one. It was just 4,000 votes shy of Hillary Clinton’s tally in 2016. It was higher than Barack Obama’s vote tally in 2012.
You read that correctly — Beshear got more votes in Louisville than Obama.
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Fayette County, the site of an election eve Trump rally, was equally unprecedented. In the last three election cycles, Democrat candidates for governor have averaged a victory of approximately 14,000 votes in the county. In 2003, Republican Ernie Fletcher actually won the county. On Tuesday, Andy Beshear won Fayette by more than 36,000 votes.
The urban onslaught was not reserved for Kentucky’s two largest counties, either. At the precinct level, Andy Beshear won Warren County, home of Kentucky’s third-largest city, by winning a majority of the precincts in the Bowling Green city limits — the closer to the center of town, the larger his margin of victory. The same was true in Owensboro, Kentucky’s fourth-largest city. He won a majority in Richmond, the sixth-largest city, and every single precinct in Covington, the fifth-largest city.
This could be easily grouped in with the longstanding, and mostly useless, commentaries on the urban-rural divide. There is no doubt it fits. It could easily be dismissed as a commentary on Bevin alone, which this election undoubtedly was.
Both conclusions would miss the critical takeaway from Tuesday’s outcome: There is an urban tsunami coming for Donald Trump.
Even aside from higher-than-average turnout, which benefited Beshear, a shift in urban voting tendencies could be the key in 2020, of which Kentucky might provide an early indication. As is well documented, rural voters helped put Trump over the top in 2016, mainly by voting for him at a higher percentage than they ever had for a Republican.
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In 2008, 53% of rural voters supported John McCain. In 2016, 62% of rural voters supported Trump. Over the same period, the percentage of the Democrat urban vote remained flat, with Clinton getting a slightly lower percentage, 59%, in 2016 than the 62% Obama had gotten in his elections. If that number climbs into the mid 60s next year, the margins could be insurmountable for Republicans in many states.
Kentucky should be a state immune to such a scenario. The state has the eighth highest percent of citizens living in rural areas in the United States, and significantly more Republicans will vote in the state’s largest counties next year than did so on Tuesday. But what will it mean for Florida, a state with more than 91% of its population in urban areas? Or Ohio, which is more than 78% urbanized? Or Michigan at 75%? What will it mean for Senate candidates like Cory Gardner, campaigning in Colorado where more than 86% of residents live in urban areas?
In 2015, the Kentucky governor's race was an eerily accurate foreshadow of the next year’s presidential election, from the style of candidate, to the inaccurate polling, to the upset victory. It could serve the same purpose for the 2020 race. That leaves a lot of open questions for Republicans.
Jordan Harris is the founder of Pegasus Institute, a public-policy think-tank based in Louisville. His views as a columnist are his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the institute.