Finley: Dems can win by running as pre-Trump Republicans

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear speaks at the Kentucky Democratic Party election night watch event, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, in Louisville, Ky.

Pundits parsing the results of recent gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and Louisiana are finding plenty to keep Republicans awake at night. 

In each state, Democrats prevailed in extremely close balloting, despite significant stumping by President Donald Trump on behalf of their GOP opponents.

Analysts are stretching the votes into referendums on Trump and a foreshadowing of what he can expect as he seeks reelection in 2020.

There may be red flags for the GOP, including eroding suburban support, which was seen in Kentucky, and a loss of college educated white voters, as was evident in Louisiana.

But other factors were at work as well, and they portend a more powerful lesson for the Democrats hoping to unseat Trump.

For starters, it's a sure bet that had Trump been on the ballot in either state, he would have carried them. Going into Election Day, the president enjoyed a plus-11 approval rating in Kentucky and a plus-12 in Louisiana. 

They still love Trump in both places. But not enough to embrace Republicans they don't like.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards

Incumbent GOP Gov. Matt Bevin is the least popular governor in Kentucky's recent history. He alienated teachers, a powerful political force in the Bluegrass State, and was never an easy fit with Kentucky's Republican establishment — he primaried Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014. And by the way, Bevin was the only statewide Republican on the ballot who lost this year in Kentucky.

The winner, Andy Beshear, is the sitting attorney general and son of the governor Bevin replaced. He has a lot in common with John Bel Edwards, the Democratic incumbent Louisiana governor who turned back a stiff challenge from a Trump-backed Republican.

Both Beshear and Edwards are dead-center moderates.

On the campaign trail, Beshear said he supports reasonable restrictions on abortion, opposes a ban on assault weapons and, although he believes climate change is real, voiced unequivocal backing for his state's coal mining industry. His running mate described herself as "compassionately pro-life."

Edwards, a West Point graduate who remains the Deep South's only Democratic governor, opposes restrictions on the 2nd Amendment, signed one of the nation's most restrictive abortion laws and called efforts to impeach Trump an unnecessary distraction. He also had a successful first term that erased Louisiana’s budget deficit. 

Neither Democrat actively campaigned against Trump, focusing instead on local issues — pension protection and health care in Kentucky, stabilizing state finances in Louisiana. 

Edwards and Beshear positioned themselves far to the right of the platform on which much of the Democratic presidential field is standing.

Their elections don't signal a radical shift in the political landscapes of either state, or a turning away from GOP policies. In fact, on paper Beshear and Edwards look more like traditional Republicans than they do the neo-socialists who've commandeered the Democratic messaging.

Obviously, their elections suggest a Democrat can win those states in next fall's presidential contest. But not a Democrat pitching an industry-killing green new deal, or abortion on demand, or gun confiscation, or expansive new spending programs, or an end to capitalism. 

A Democrat can win, as Beshear and Edwards did in the gubernatorial races, by running as pre-Trump Republicans.

Catch Nolan Finley on "One Detroit" at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on Detroit Public Television.