Impeachment was supposed to be the third rail of American politics. If Democrats touched it, went the argument from pundits, strategists, and political insiders in both parties, they would doom themselves at the polls. By the fall of 2019, however, Donald Trump’s abuses of power became so extreme that Democrats could no longer avoid their duty to the Constitution. Five days before the 2019 off-year elections would choose governors, legislators, and mayors across the country, House Democrats outlined the rules for holding the president to account.
By the old calculus, the Democrats were dooming themselves electorally.
But the old calculus no longer applies. Democrats had a great night Tuesday. Not a perfect night, mind you; they lost some races they would have liked to have won. But by the measure Donald Trump established, Democrats won where it mattered.
Trump bet that a reaction against impeachment would mobilize Republicans in Kentucky, assuring the reelection of an abrasive GOP governor, Matt Bevin, and giving the president bragging rights when he needed them most. The president sought to weaponize impeachment as a political tool. He jumped on a plane and headed to Lexington, where he headlined a great big rally the evening before the election. With Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky at his side, Trump told Kentuckians that they had to save his presidency. They had to be his firewall against the Democrats, whom he accused of “plotting to overthrow the  election.” It should not have been a tough sell. Trump won the state by 30 points in 2016, carrying all but two Kentucky counties. The president’s message was reinforced by television ads claiming that Bevin had to be reelected in order to upend “socialists in Washington [who] want to impeach Trump.”
On election eve, Donald Trump was literally pleading with the crowd in Lexington to send a message to the rest of the country. “You’ve got to vote. If [Bevin were to] lose,” the president warned, “they are going to say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. You can’t let that happen to me!”
Kentuckians let it happen to him.
Democrat Andy Beshear, the state’s sitting attorney general and the son of a former governor, finished more than 5,000 votes ahead of Bevin. It was close, and Bevin was refusing to concede, but the damage was done in a state where veteran election analyst Larry Sabato said Trump “put his reputation on the line.”
“Beshear doesn’t represent you,” Trump had warned on the night before the vote. “He represents the Washington swamp and he’s backed by the same people trying to overthrow the last election.” As it turned out, a lot of Kentuckians wanted the Democrat—who ran a labor-backed, pro-choice, pro–public education campaign that focused on state and local issues—to represent them. Beshear ran up big numbers in the Democratic strongholds of Louisville and Lexington, finished with better-than-expected numbers in suburban areas, and, perhaps most notably, won more than a dozen rural counties that had backed Trump in 2016. In rural Elliott County, where Trump won by more than 40 points three years ago, Beshear won by 20 points on Tuesday night.
Republican spin doctors and their amen corner in the media immediately tried to reimagine Bevin as an unappealing and ultimately unelectable right-winger. But this was the same Matt Bevin who won the governorship by almost 10 points in 2015, and who ran this year with a huge bankroll and a huge push from a president who begged Kentucky for a mandate to oppose impeachment.
Republicans were not just having trouble at the top of the ticket in Kentucky on Tuesday. The party lost both houses of the Virginia legislature, giving Democrats (who already hold the state’s governorship) a big upper hand going into the post-2020 Census redistricting process. While Republicans retained the governorship in Mississippi (another state where Trump campaigned), the party’s advantage fell from 66-32 in 2015 to 52-47 this year. In Columbus, Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence’s hometown, Democrats took control of the city council for the first time in more than three decades. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “Democrats won political control of the once-legendary GOP stronghold of Delaware County [Pennsylvania], part of what appeared late Tuesday to be a Republican wipeout across the Philadelphia region and in other elections around the country.” And in Loudoun County, Virginia, Juli Briskman, who earned global attention after she was fired in 2017 for flipping off Trump‘s motorcade as it passed by while she was riding her bicycle, defeated a Republican incumbent for a seat on the county board of supervisors.
Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress said of Trump late Tuesday night, “He has no coattails for Republicans.” That was a strong statement from an admitted partisan. But the point will not be missed by Republican US House and US Senate members, who in coming weeks will have to decide whether to cling to Trump or, perhaps, begin distancing themselves from their party’s embattled president. It will be harder for McConnell to tell Republican senators to stick with the president after McConnell’s home state just rejected a Republican governor who stuck with the president. Tanden was gleeful, urging foes of the administration to “think of how Mitch McConnell, with an 18 percent approval [rating], looks at the Beshear returns in Kentucky right now. You can almost feel his stomach sink.”