Three states are set to elect governors in 2019, and the first thing to know about them is that they’re not a random sample.
All three — Louisiana, of course, plus Mississippi and Kentucky — are in the South. All three lean heavily Republican, and are represented by two GOP U.S. senators. In each, President Donald Trump topped Hillary Clinton by at least 18 points.
And here’s the kicker: All three of these races start out as at least somewhat competitive.
Louisiana’s John Bel Edwards already beat the odds once by getting elected as a Democrat, and he now runs for reelection with the advantages of incumbency. He also failed to attract a big-name GOP challenger. So Edwards certainly enters 2019 with as good a chance as any Democrat would have on unfriendly turf.
The more surprising part is that Mississippi and Kentucky aren’t shoo-ins for Republicans, despite the party’s built-in advantages. And in each state, some lessons from Louisiana could apply.
Mississippi’s Republican Gov. Phil Bryant is leaving due to term limits, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a small-government, pro-Trump conservative, is the presumed GOP favorite. The wild card here is the identity of the likely Democrat, longtime Attorney General Jim Hood.
Hood already stands out for having won repeatedly in a deep red state. And despite their very different hairlines — Edwards doesn’t have much and Hood’s eye-catching mane is routinely compared to Conway Twitty’s — he brings some of the same qualities to the table that Edwards does.
Like Edwards, Hood is conservative on a pair of key cultural issues, guns and abortion. Beyond that, he’s also got a populist, look-out-for-the-little-guy streak (he has sued pharmacy companies over pricing, for example). He advocates for Medicaid expansion, as Edwards did, and he talks in mission-driven terms about helping the vulnerable.
This was a winning formula for Edwards — or at least, it wasn’t a losing formula. Who knows if the same might be true next door?
Up in Kentucky, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin is up for reelection, perhaps against the attorney general and son of a previous Democratic governor, Andy Beshear. If Hood has some of the same qualities as Edwards, Bevin has some late-stage Bobby Jindal in him.
Jindal started off strong but ended his two terms with historically poor poll numbers, and Edwards’ election probably owes as much to Jindal's failings as to opponent David Vitter’s.
Bevin’s approval ratings are terrible, too. In a Morning Consult poll late last year, just 30 percent of respondents gave him a thumbs-up, and 55 percent said they disapprove of his performance.
And like Jindal, some of Bevin’s most controversial moves have also been his most ideological ones. Jindal’s anti-tax dogma and his plays to Republican presidential voters fell flat at home among voters who wanted the state to fund basic services. Bevin has drawn criticism for trying to roll back Medicaid expansion — which Jindal refused to implement and Edwards quickly adopted — and for taking on teachers over pension issues.
These comparisons only go so far, but there’s been a real tendency among voters nationwide to cross party lines in voting for governor in a way they never would for national office.
It goes both ways. Louisiana chose Edwards in 2015 and Kansas, another red state reeling from an austerity agenda pushed by former Gov. Sam Brownback, just elected a Democratic governor. Meanwhile, deep blue Massachusetts and Maryland easily reelected Republican leaders in 2018.
Partisanship is still a powerful force, and it may be enough to keep both of these other governor offices in GOP hands. Voters in Mississippi and Kentucky only have to look as far as Louisiana, though, to understand that it’s not a given.