November 6, 2019 – Ahead of important elections yesterday in several states—most notably Kentucky, Virginia, and Mississippi—President Trump did what he does best: made the story about himself. His media boosters did what they do best and rowed in behind. Trump’s Monday night rally in Kentucky—where Matt Bevin, the unpopular Republican governor, faced a tough race against Andy Beshear, the state’s Democratic attorney general—was a case in point. Bevin, Trump said, is a “pain in the ass,” but voters should turn out and reelect him anyway. Trump gestured toward the assembled news cameras. “If you lose, they’re gonna say, ‘Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world,’” he said. “You can’t let that happen to me!”
As of this morning, it seemed likely that Bevin had lost. (Beshear leads by about 5,000 votes and has declared victory; Bevin has yet to concede, and has made unspecified claims about “irregularities.”) Did “they” lay blame of historic proportions on Trump? The answer is yes—if you believe Laura Ingraham, of Fox News, and the president’s son Don Jr., that is. Last night, as the results came through, Ingraham tried to make the Kentucky governor’s race very much not about Trump, calling Bevin “the most unpopular governor in the country” and Beshear’s family “legendary” in Kentucky. (Andy Beshear’s father, Steve, was governor before Bevin.) Ingraham showed clips—cut, selectively, from Anderson Cooper’s earlier show, on CNN—of pundits discussing Trump’s role in the race. “It’s the soundbites we’re so used to,” Trump Jr. said, shaking his head. “This is that same mainstream media that will run with anything.”
In reality, the news media did not blame Trump for Bevin’s travails—well, not exclusively. Diving into a granular discussion of the race on Cooper’s show, CNN’s John King said, “Yes, there’s a Trump factor here, but there’s also some local politics at play,” principally Bevin’s unpopularity and Beshear’s background. On the same show, David Axelrod called Bevin “a disagreeable character, and that has dogged him throughout.” Mike Shields—a Republican—mentioned that Daniel Cameron, also a Republican, was easily winning the race to replace Beshear as attorney general, becoming the first Black holder of that office. (Trump Jr. told Ingraham that the mythic “they” in the mainstream media “won’t talk about” Cameron’s victory.) Chris Cuomo, on after Cooper, noted Bevin’s “missteps on issues that matter,” including Medicaid, which Bevin threatened to slash. (“There’s always context in politics,” Cuomo said.) Around the same time, over on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow called Bevin “a special kinda guy, a special kinda Republican governor in the sense that people don’t seem to like him very much.” She mentioned Medicaid, too, as well as Bevin’s public spats with educators and law enforcement. (Bevin has accused striking teachers of complicity in child sexual abuse.) Maddow also situated elections in Virginia—which went all-blue for the first time in a generation—in their local context, noting a recent court ruling redrawing the state’s previously gerrymandered voting map. All this happened before Ingraham’s show started.
We saw similar detail away from cable. Pollsters and political wonks got into the weeds: Dave Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, noted that Virginia’s Senate race “could’ve been a lot worse” for Republicans; CNN pollster Harry Enten tweeted, of Kentucky, that “candidates matter.” High up in its lead story on the elections, the New York Times called other Republican successes in Kentucky “a sign that Kentucky voters were rejecting Mr. Bevin and not his party”; the same story called Virginia “a reliably blue state” now, and highlighted apparent Republican gains in New Jersey. The AP said the GOP had a bad night, but warned, “It’s difficult to draw sweeping conclusions from state elections, each with their own unique quirks and personalities.” Others also noted Bevin’s special situation, and longer-term trends in Virginia.
None of this is to deny that there was linkage to Trump and national politics—there was a lot of that. The Washington Post said the Kentucky race “embarrasses Trump”; Politico’s influential Playbook newsletter leads this morning with the words “Trump’s GOP walloped.” But such links are appropriate. Yesterday’s races offered further evidence that suburban voters are ditching Trump’s GOP. Both parties are increasingly nationalizing local elections, making it harder than before to disentangle their results from the state of the nation. Bevin was unpopular, particularly on health care—but so are other Republicans elsewhere. And having made all this about Trump, the press shouldn’t let the president and his boosters rewrite history. As Lawrence O’Donnell said on MSNBC, “If he wants to make it about him, it’s a very bad night for him.”
Two years ago—following the first elections of Trump’s presidency, in states including Virginia and New Jersey—I wrote for CJR that coverage, generally, was too eager to extrapolate sweeping conclusions from a complex local picture. National conclusions are prominent again this morning, but to me, at least, they feel a beat or two less breathless than in 2017, and more rooted in the messy specifics.
Below, more on elections, and Trump:
- Fake news!: Like Trump, Bevin has a predilection for press-bashing. He’s bridled at scrutiny from the Louisville Courier-Journal, calling one of its reporters a “peeping Tom,” and assailing its partnership with ProPublica, which Bevin called “a left-wing activist group funded by the likes of George Soros.” On Tuesday, he blasted the “historically challenged national media who seem shocked that we have a competitive race” on Twitter. As Jonathan Martin writes for the Times, this was a selective characterization.
- The clock is ticking: As many outlets noted, Sunday marked one year until the 2020 presidential election. We’ve seen no shortage of national polling, but on Monday, the Times made a splash with a detailed set of surveys—conducted in conjunction with Siena College—showing that Trump is more competitive than anticipated in key battleground states. Nate Cohn, the paper’s polling maven, discussed the findings with Michael Barbaro on yesterday’s episode of The Daily.
- Primary colors: FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver criticizes a “common refrain” in Democratic primary coverage: that the race looks much different in the early states than it does nationally. “The refrain is true if you look only at Iowa or only at New Hampshire, but it’s mostly not true overall,” Silver writes. “Taken collectively, polls in the four early states… tell almost the same story as national polls.”