What Democratic Gains at Polls Mean for 2020

Wins in Virginia and Kentucky, and a narrow loss to a Republican in deep-red Mississippi, suggest Democrats have an edge with young, diverse voters, Tufts professor says
A man at a podium speaking, with family around him. Democratic gains in Virginia and Kentucky, and a narrow Republican win in Mississippi, point to the need for high turnout, says Tufts political scientist
Andy Beshear, the Democratic candidate for governor in Kentucky, speaking to supporters on the evening of November 5. Photo: AP/Bryan Woolston
November 6, 2019

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Election results from southern U.S. states that have traditionally been Republican strongholds showed surprising turnarounds on November 5. In Kentucky, Democratic candidate for governor Andy Beshear narrowly led the Republican incumbent, and in Virginia both houses of the state legislature flipped from red to blue, for the first time in more than twenty-five years.

In Mississippi, the Republican candidate for governor won, but only by 7 points in a deeply red state. The Kentucky election “follows the pattern in the 2018 congressional races, and Democrats have to be pleased,” said Jeffrey Berry, John Richard Skuse, Class of 1941, Professor of Political Science at Tufts.

Tufts Now spoke with Berry to learn more about the 2019 results and what they might auger for 2020’s presidential and Congressional elections.

Tufts Now: Presuming the Democratic candidate for Kentucky prevails, in a state that is about as red as you can get, how did he win, and what does that portend for Republicans heading into 2020?

The outcome in Kentucky is being interpreted as a case of a terrible incumbent candidate on the Republican side being turned out. That’s part of the story but the larger dynamic is that voter turnout was sharply higher than in the comparable governor’s race in 2015. Some voters surely came out at President Trump’s behest to vote for Republican Matt Bevin, but more of the increased turnout was clearly tied to voting against Bevin and Trump. This follows the pattern in the 2018 congressional races and Democrats have to be pleased. The Democrats don’t win in 2020 unless they get higher turnout from younger voters and minority voters than they did in 2016.

The Virginia legislature is now controlled by Democrats after decades of domination by Republicans. What helped them win?

The underlying story about Virginia is one of demographic change. Northern Virginia has exploded in population as its dynamic economy has grown in the Washington suburbs and around Dulles Airport. Northern Virginia is highly diverse and highly educated—it’s more part of the north than the south. The question now is whether Virginia is a harbinger of what will happen in other southern states that have expanding economies and an increasingly diverse workforce.

In Mississippi, the Republican gubernatorial candidate prevailed. Why did Democrats not do better there?

The nerdy, political science way of analyzing elections is to look not at single races but, instead, at patterns. And Mississippi, even though the Republican candidate won there, fits into the larger narrative about the 2018 and 2019 elections. The Democrats did considerably better in Mississippi this time around and the swing to the Democrats in this ruby red state has to be disconcerting to the Republicans.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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