ON THE EVE of the election, President Donald Trump stood in a basketball stadium in Lexington, Kentucky, trying to salvage the candidacy of Matt Bevin, the incumbent Republican governor who has one of the lowest approval ratings in the country. “He’s such a pain in the ass, but that’s what you want,” said Mr Trump, who in 2016 carried the state by 30 points. “If you lose,” he added, “they’re going to say, Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world.” In the end, the Bluegrass state let the president down. Though Mr Bevin refused to concede, it looks as though he narrowly lost (by 5,189 votes, or 0.36% of those cast) to Andy Beshear, the Democratic candidate.
Whether that was in fact a world-historic defeat is another matter. All the other statewide contests in Kentucky saw hefty Republican victories. The defeat at the top of the ticket was more a reflection on Mr Bevin (who insisted, for example, that a teachers’ strike had led to the sexual assault of children) than a sign that Mr Trump’s influence among Republicans is waning. Kentucky is unlikely to be a battleground state in 2020.
In another closely watched gubernatorial race in Mississippi, the Republican Tate Reeves won by a six-point margin over Jim Hood, the moderate Democrat who had been serving as attorney-general. Though this might look encouraging for Democrats, given the state’s Trumpiness, it is not. Mr Hood, who is anti-abortion and opposed to gun control, is probably the strongest candidate Democrats could find in the state and he still lost by a decent distance.
The other big victory for Democrats came from state-legislative elections in Virginia, where the party seized control of both chambers. That gives Ralph Northam, the sitting Democratic governor, unified control over legislation and a new lease on political life—having now weathered a black-face scandal earlier this year that nearly ended his tenure (rejoice, Justin Trudeau). Though Mr Trump campaigned in Kentucky, he studiously avoided the contests in Virginia, where he is unpopular. Even there, the results look less like a rebuke to Mr Trump than the inevitable consequence of a steadily changing state, which Hillary Clinton won by five points.
Off-year elections provide more than mere tasseography for subsequent big contests. They also have ramifications for policy. In Kentucky, Mr Beshear has pledged to bolster education funding, though the Republican supermajority legislature may handicap these aspirations. But his election would stop Mr Bevin’s efforts to scale back the expansion of Medicaid, the government health-insurance programme for the very poor. Hopes for an expansion of Medicaid in Mississippi, one of least healthy states in the country, however, are probably dashed.
In Virginia, Mr Northam will be able to advance gun-control and voter-registration legislation that had previously been stymied. He also has plans for a clean-energy bill, adding some substance to his pledge to ensure carbon-free electricity by 2050. All these elections will also affect the redrawing of congressional-district boundaries after the 2020 census.
If there is any lesson, it is that the bifurcation in political views between rural and urban America continues apace. Mr Beshear was able to win by squeezing 110,000 more votes out of Louisville and Lexington than the previous Democratic candidate. Population growth in Northern Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington, DC, has made the state tough terrain for Republicans.