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Why Democrats Shouldn’t Panic Over Tuesday’s Election Results

Democratic Presidential Candidates Attend Iowa Jefferson-Jackson DinnerDemocratic Presidential Candidates Attend Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is introduced by Iowa Democratic Party Chair Andy McGuire (L) at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner on October 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. Photograph by Scott Olson — Getty Images

There’s no doubt that conservatives romped across the country in Tuesday’s off-year elections.

To recap: In Kentucky, rightwing firebrand Matt Bevin defied expectations by winning the governor’s race in a walk. Mississippi’s Republican governor easily secured reelection (over a truck driver). Virginia Republicans pulled off a goal-line stand, denying Democrats the single-seat pickup they needed to recapture the state Senate. Ohio voters sank a referendum to legalize marijuana. A proposed Houston ordinance to protect gay residents failed, by a lot. And the San Francisco sheriff, embroiled in controversy over his defense of the “sanctuary city” policy after a murder committed by a undocumented immigrant, lost his reelection bid.

Taken together, those results seem to form a flashing neon billboard begging Democrats to wake up. That is, it may be fun to laugh at a Republican party that from Capitol Hill to the presidential campaign trail seems bent on consuming itself. But as Tuesday’s returns indicate, voters are in a conservative mood and Democrats shouldn’t take anything for granted when it comes to their presidential hopes. Right? Well, not quite.

Consider the Kentucky governor’s race. It was the crown jewel of this set of off-year contests, for a couple reasons. For one, unlike, say, the Mississippi gubernatorial, it was a nip-and-tuck race. Bevin, a self-funder who’d lost a 2014 primary challenge against kingpin Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, faced off against Jack Conway, Kentucky’s telegenic attorney general who was running to succeed a popular Democratic governor. The polling, scant and unreliable, suggested throughout that Conway had the edge.

Plus, the race carried national policy stakes. Bevin ran in part on a pledge to undo the incumbent governor’s embrace of Obamacare — including a Medicaid expansion that dropped the impoverished state’s uninsured rate from 20.4 to 9 percent. Indeed, if Bevin forges ahead with his declared plans to dismantle Kentucky’s implementation of the law, Republicans nationwide will be rapt, watching for insights into how to go about rolling it back.

But it’d be a mistake to try to draw broad conclusions about the temperament of the national electorate from this race — or indeed any of the rest. In Kentucky, for example, fewer than 1 million people — less than a third of the state’s registered voters — cast ballots in the race. And the state itself, 26th by population, is hardly a bellwether, having broken 60% for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

That hasn’t stopped observers from trying. The Democratic Governors Association, the national political arm charged with electing Democrats to governors’ mansions, chalked up Conway’s defeat to the “unexpected headwinds of Trump-mania, losing to an outsider candidate in the year of the outsider.” It’s a facile line, absolving the Democrat and the organization behind him of responsibility for his own fate while also crediting Bevin’s win to a sort of collective psychosis seizing Republican voters all over the map. And one of Bevin’s home-state colleagues, Sen. Rand Paul, moved by his own reasons, strikingly echoed some of that language, saying voters “did want a businessman, an outsider when they picked Matt Bevin. They really didn’t want a career politician.” (Of course, Paul fits that profile, too, and his 2010 victory over the state GOP’s handpicked candidate in a Senate primary battle paved the way for Bevin. But Paul has since failed to translate his outsider cred into momentum on the presidential trail — a potentially cautionary tale for Bevin about how well Kentucky insurgents travel.)

The more convincing explanation for Bevin’s win is a little more banal: He’s a Republican in a ruby-red state. Beyond Obamacare, Bevin successfully nationalized the race by hammering Conway on Obama’s energy policy and social issues like gay marriage and federal funding for Planned Parenthood. The Washington Post pointed to that strategy in proclaiming the race “could be the future of American politics.” But Kentucky is in fact a lagging indicator of a trend more than a half-century in progress — the realignment of the South from a Democratic stronghold post-Reconstruction to a reliably Republican bastion (Kentucky’s House of Representatives is the last legislative chamber in the entire region still controlled by Democrats). To that end, if Bevin’s victory suggests anything, it’s that Republicans will likely win the state in the 2016 presidential race. We already knew that.

It is true that Democrats have compiled what for them should be a worrying record in off-year races during the Obama era. The poor performance matters because the party needs that bench to develop its next generation of national stars. Just as key, Republican dominance of state legislatures has allowed the party to tilt Congressional redistricting in their favor and protect the GOP’s grip on the U.S. House.

But two bright spots for Democrats on Tuesday will chip away that hold. Ohio voters approved an amendment to the state constitution designed to make the district-drawing process there more transparent and less partisan; and Pennsylvania voters handed Democrats a majority on the state Supreme Court, which has ultimate authority over that state’s Congressional map.

Democrats nervous that Tuesday’s results spell trouble ahead in the presidential contest should look to their own recent history. Two years ago, Bill de Blasio’s off-year victory in the New York mayoral election had political observers wondering whether the rise of the liberal stalwart, along with that of Sen. Elizabeth Warren up the road in Massachusetts, presaged a rebirth of a vigorous left-wing movement. Today, Democrats are consolidating behind the presidential candidacy of a figure still viewed with sufficient skepticism on the left that an avowed socialist is presenting her stiffest competition. And in the topsy-turvy 2016 primaries, Hillary Clinton increasingly looks like the closest approximation of a lock.

All of which is to say, when it comes to the presidential race, Tuesday’s results present more noise than signal.