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Columns Tom Baxter

In Kentucky and Louisiana, sheriffs and teachers mattered more than Trump

By Tom Baxter

You can’t blame Donald Trump for everything, or give him all the credit either.

Trump’s opponents have trumpeted Democratic victories in the Kentucky and Louisiana governor’s races as a personal defeat for the president because he campaigned for Republicans Matt Bevin in Kentucky and Eddie Rispone in Louisiana. Trump’s supporters have responded that he made these races closer than they would have been, and credit him for the strong showing of down-ballot Republicans in both states.

There’s a little smattering of truth in both these arguments, but not enough to make these races turn out any differently than they would if somebody else were president. For the former reality show star, the most unsettling thing about these recent races could be that he didn’t matter that much either way.

These elections reaffirmed two bedrock principles about politicking in the South. It’s good if the sheriffs are on your side, and if the teachers aren’t on your side, it’s very, very bad.

Incumbent Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is the son and brother of sheriffs and the husband of a teacher. He presided over a teacher pay raise in his first term. Former Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, who retired from law enforcement to become a popular Republican radio talk show host, bucked his party and gave Edwards a powerful boost in the New Orleans suburbs.

These advantages may have been overlooked while Trump was blasting him in three campaign visits, but they mattered in the voting Saturday. So did the fact that Rispone was a first-time candidate who resorted to some bruising tactics to overcome rival Republican U.S, Rep. Ralph Abraham in the first round of Louisiana’s jungle primary. An estimated 10 percent of the Republican voters in Abraham’s district crossed over to vote for Edwards Saturday.

Trump’s campaign stops probably did help drive up African-American turnout, which was the single biggest factor in Edwards’ election. But Rispone was also endorsed by David Duke, so it isn’t as though there wasn’t sufficient motivation for African-American voters to turn out against him. By the same token, Trump caused Edwards to lose rural precincts he carried in his first election, but Democrats were able, barely, to keep Republicans from gaining a supermajority in the state house of representatives.

The Kentucky election was Nov. 5, but Bevin didn’t concede to Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear until late last week, claiming all the way to the end that there were irregularities in the vote.

Bevin not only didn’t have the teachers in Kentucky on his side, he has kept up a running feud with them since they staged sickouts early this year to protest changes in their pension fund. He called them ignorant, said they were acting like thugs and claimed a student had been sexually assaulted while the teachers were protesting. Teachers knocked on thousands of doors to beat him. He also sought to scale back the Medicaid expansion waiver put in place by Beshear’s father, former Gov. Steve Beshear.

Turnout was up significantly in both states, and Trump can claim that he had a lot to do with that. The rising tide lifted all boats, however, and produced a result in the two governor’s races which could have been predicted without counting Trump as a factor. Increased intensity did make the reds on the election map look redder and the blues bluer. Both Beshear and Edwards won by hair-thin margins, and will face hardened Republican majorities when dealing with their legislatures.

The president has no need to worry about carrying either of these states in 2020, any more than Franklin D. Roosevelt had to worry about carrying Georgia, his adopted state, when in the presence of Sen. Walter George he threw his support to George’s primary opponent in 1938. George shook the president’s hand after the speech and told him he accepted the challenge.

“The people of Georgia do not need to be told by the President of the United States whom to vote for. That is their business,” George said on the stump. He won re-election easily, and by World War II patched up his differences with Roosevelt.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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