Republicans suffered setbacks in two states in off-year elections Tuesday, despite President Donald Trump’s efforts to rally supporters to the defense of GOP candidates down the ballot as the 2020 race heats up.

A staunchly pro-Trump Republican governor in Kentucky faced what could be an upset loss in his reelection bid. And in Virginia, Democrats seized both houses of the Legislature from Republicans, gaining full control of state government for the first time in 26 years.

The losses were largely attributable to local forces. Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin was deeply unpopular and other GOP officeholders did fairly well in the state, home to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Virginia Republicans entered the election with only a one-seat margin in each chamber in a state that has become more closely contested in presidential elections.

Even so, those races — and other contests in Mississippi and New Jersey that saw no changes in power Tuesday — were embraced by Trump and the Republican Party as key tests of the president’s popularity.

With one year until the presidential election, impeachment proceedings in Congress and the Democratic nomination battle just beginning, experts say Tuesday’s results have little predictive value for the 2020 election.

“It’s just too far out, and we don’t know what the circumstances will be next year,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.


With just four states conducting statewide elections on Tuesday, the sample was too small to extrapolate national trends. “These races tend to get a lot of attention, but I don’t think any of the states that we’re watching tonight are going to be any of the most competitive states that are going to be determining the presidency,” Kondik said on Tuesday night.

Trump campaigned aggressively for the Republican gubernatorial candidates, flying to Tupelo, Mississippi, last Friday to campaign for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who won the governorship, and led a rally in Lexington, Kentucky, on Monday for Bevin.

“If they lose they’re going to say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. You can’t let that happen to me,” Trump told the audience in Kentucky.

He clearly had an eye on election results Tuesday night, tweeting his congratulations to Kentucky Attorney General candidate Daniel Cameron, a Republican who became the first African-American elected as the state’s chief law enforcement officer. “Great going Daniel, proud of you!” Trump wrote.

Trump also boasted on Twitter of winning “5 out of 6 elections in Kentucky, including five great candidates that I spoke for and introduced last night.”

On Wednesday morning, Trump cast the results as a good sign for McConnell, who is up for reelection next year and whose continued support is critical to Trump’s ability to weather the impeachment inquiry. “Based on the Kentucky results, Mitch McConnell @senatemajldr will win BIG in Kentucky next year!” Trump tweeted.


Bevin trailed Democratic challenger, Attorney General Andy Beshear by 4,000 votes in unofficial results. Beshear claimed victory, but The Associated Press said it was too close to call.

Neither Bevin nor Trump conceded the loss. “The president just about dragged Governor Matt Bevin across the finish line, helping him run stronger than expected in what turned into a very close race at the end,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement. “A final outcome remains to be seen.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez used the same metaphor earlier Tuesday to predict Bevin’s loss and tie it to Trump.

“It’s pretty amazing won Kentucky by 30 points and he had to go there last night to try to drag Matt Bevin across the finish line,” Perez told Bloomberg Television.

Democratic 2020 front-runner Joe Biden, who attended get-out-the-vote efforts in Virginia on Monday, said GOP candidates there avoided being tied to Trump.

“Virginians were not fooled by Republicans who spent the campaign pretending they’re moderate, pretending they’re for health care, pretending they’re for sensible gun regulations, pretending they don’t even know who Donald Trump is,” Biden said in a statement issued by his campaign.


Bevin tied his fate to Trump, and once proudly cited among his accomplishments the fact that Kentucky was the first state to be called for Trump in 2016 — which was mostly a function of its early poll closing times. And earlier Tuesday, he urged Kentuckians to “send a loud and clear message to America” that they stand proudly with the president.

The prospect of a Bevin loss was seen as an upset. He won the state by 9 percentage points four years ago, and the state’s economy has performed well under Bevin and Trump, who won the state by 30 points.

It’s perceived as a deeply conservative state: Kentucky has voted Republican in presidential elections since 2000, and has had two Republican senators since 1998.

But that streak belies a much more competitive political landscape, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans and 13 of the last 16 governors have been Democrats.

So Tuesday’s results may not mean as much for Trump as they appear. “Given that Republicans did well in all the other statewide races there, I view this more as a repudiation of Bevin than anything else,” Kondik said.

In Kentucky and elsewhere, state races have become more nationalized over time — with candidates campaigning on national issues and tying themselves and their opponents to national politicians.


But it’s unclear whether off-year state elections can predict national sentiment when the president isn’t on the ballot, so any political damage to Trump is likely to be short term.

In fact, one study shows that winning a governor’s race can sometimes hurt a political party in the next presidential election.

Robert Erikson of Columbia University looked at close gubernatorial elections over 120 years, finding that presidents performed 2% to 3% worse in the states where their party had recently won the governor’s office.

His theory: Voters were balancing their votes, either consciously or unconsciously, so that one party doesn’t hold too much power.

In Mississippi, Reeves was declared the winner over Democrat Jim Hood for that state’s governor’s mansion. “Great Going Tate!” the president tweeted early Wednesday.

In New Jersey, Democrats sought to hold on to their supermajority in the State Assembly.

Trump’s not done campaigning this year.

He’ll travel to Monroe, Louisiana, on Wednesday to support Republican Eddie Rispone against incumbent Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards. Neither candidate received a majority in Louisiana’s nonpartisan primary last month, so they’ll compete in a runoff Nov. 16.