It’s hard to overstate just how bad of a night Democrats had on Tuesday. In nearly every race and on nearly every issue they lost, which is not just a stark reminder of how badly the party has fared at the state level, but how big the challenge is they face in 2016.
The biggest surprise of the night came as Republican Matt Bevin won the Kentucky governor’s race despite being behind in early every poll in the run up to Election Day. It’s worth keeping in mind just how much of an underdog Bevin was. He was running in a state in which Democrats have held the governor’s mansion for all but four of the last 44 years, he did almost no fundraising (in fact, he had a negative balance as of late June), he didn’t start airing television ads until late September, and he made little attempt to plug into the local GOP infrastructure. But it didn’t matter. He won going away.
Democrats are searching for answers as to how they could have squandered such a golden opportunity to retain an important seat. Some are quick to blame President Obama, who is deeply unpopular in the state. Others blame Obamacare based on Bevin’s campaign that focused on the law’s repeal. Others argued that “Conway was the anchor around Conway,” and although they couldn’t put their finger on why, “there’s just something about him that voters simply don’t want to vote for.” And still others, somehow, found a way to blame Donald Trump.
“Conway … ran into the unexpected head winds of Trump-mania, losing to an outsider candidate in the year of the outsider,” Democratic Governors Association executive director Elisabeth Pearson said in a statement.
The real answer is both simpler and more complex. Simpler because Bevin was the candidate who better represented what constituents wanted, which is what every election is about, and more complex because there was no single person or issue that crystallized the race. President Obama isn’t popular in Kentucky and Kentuckians didn’t like Obamacare, sure, but they also didn’t like the loss of their coal industry, the unfunded liability of state worker pensions, or the state’s failure to pass a right to work bill.
Of course, the power of GOP candidates and conservatives ideas wasn’t limited to Kentucky.
It was felt in Mississippi, where Democrats couldn’t even field a meaningful candidate. In the end, Republican Governor Phil Bryant won re-election over a long-shot challenge from truck driver Robert Gray, who spent no money or even seriously campaign. Famously, Gray didn’t even tell his family he was running and didn’t even vote for himself in the primary because he said he was too busy running errands that day. This is the Democrat Party in states like Mississippi.
And it was felt in Virginia, where Democrats were fiercely fighting for control of the state Senate in an effort to deliver political leverage to Democrat Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Democrats needed to only flip one seat in order to gain a majority, but they couldn’t manage that. The outcome was a deep blow for Gov. McAuliffe, who barnstormed the state and raised millions for the effort, and for Hillary Clinton, who hoped that Democrats could build policy momentum in the state before 2014. Neither of those happened.
So what does it all mean?
Well, it means that Obamacare is not finished as a political issue. Outgoing Kentucky Governor Beshear proudly predicted that, “[T]he Democratic nominee will make this a major issue and will pound the Republicans into dust with it.” That, very obviously, didn’t happen in Kentucky and isn’t going to happen on the national stage, where Obamacare will continue to serve as a yoke around the necks of Democrats chances.
It also means that Democrats have a long way to go down the ticket races. As Greg Sargent writes for the Washington Post, Bevin’s win in particular was “a particularly stark reminder of how deep a hole Democrats have dug for themselves at the state level.” And that doesn’t come without consequences. It means Republicans continue to build a deep bench and grow the forums for them to test conservative policies, both of which contribute to better national prospects.
And finally, it means that Hillary Clinton has a tough hill to climb in 2016. If Democrats can’t sell their people or policies in places like California (which sacked a pro-sanctuary cities sheriff in San Francisco), much less swing states like Virginia and Kentucky, then they party could face real trouble attempting to convince voters that Clinton’s sharp left turn deserves ascension to the White House.