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Democrats Score Election Victories In Virginia And (Probably) Kentucky

There’s nothing like election night, with its twists and turns. And this year’s contests offered up a fine appetizer to prepare us for the multiple courses to come in 2020. We saw one governor’s seat (probably) change hands while another state handed full control of power to one party. Here’s what went down last night:

The race for governor in Kentucky is still too close to call, according to the Associated Press, but with 100 percent of precincts reporting, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear leads Republican Gov. Matt Bevin 49.2 percent to 48.8 percent, or a margin of a little more than 5,000 votes. And Bevin told supporters last night that he won’t concede, which could complicate things and lead to a recount if Bevin presses the matter. But in a state that otherwise elected Republican candidates for statewide offices last night, Beshear’s possible victory is notable for Democrats, as it’s evidence that split-ticket voting does still occur.

Beshear claimed victory in a speech on Tuesday night, laying out his policy priorities as governor. Within his first week in office, Beshear said, he would drop Bevin’s plan to require certain Medicaid recipients to work in order to receive health coverage, which could have resulted in 95,000 fewer people receiving Medicaid. And he also vowed to follow through on his campaign pledge of restoring the right to vote to 140,000 felons convicted of nonviolent crimes who have completed their sentences — about 4 percent of Kentucky’s citizen voting age population. (Kentucky is one of just two states where all felons permanently lose the right to vote unless it is individually restored by the governor.) However, Beshear’s policy impact may be limited to executive action, as he is still largely powerless to stop Republican legislation. Both chambers of the Kentucky legislature are still Republican-controlled, and in Kentucky, a simple majority is all that’s needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

Democrats achieved an even clearer victory in Virginia, where Democrats now control both the Senate and the House in the Virginia General Assembly. The Democrats gained two seats in the Senate to take a narrow 21-19 majority in the upper chamber, and six seats in the House for a 55-45 majority there. With Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam already in charge of the commonwealth’s executive branch, Democrats now have a “trifecta” — complete control over law-making in Richmond, and the first time Democrats have had full control of Virginia government since the early 1990s.

This shift could have all sorts of policy implications for Virginia, too. One big-ticket item could be gun control legislation. After a shooting in Virginia Beach in May, Northam tried to push through legislation in July that included universal background checks on gun purchases and an assault weapons ban but the GOP-controlled legislature refused to take it up. Democrats could also take up raising the minimum wage to $15, as most Democrats in the legislature previously backed the idea. Democrats have also promised to expand voting rights, protect the rights of LGBTQ Virginians, improve health care affordability, and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And last but not least, Democrats could have the final word on redistricting after the 2020 census, though a pending constitutional amendment for a redistricting commision might alter how the state draws lines.

But, of course, not everything went Democrats’ way. Republicans salvaged the night by holding onto the Mississippi governorship. There, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves defeated Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood 52 percent to 47 percent, with 99 percent of precincts reporting. But this was always considered the longest shot of the night for Democrats, with nonpartisan polls and election handicappers all agreeing that Reeves was favored. Still, a win’s a win, and Republicans will hold onto their governing trifecta in the Magnolia State.

What did all three of these races have in common? Well, at a high level, the results provided further evidence for a widening urban-rural political divide. In particular, Democrats’ successes on Tuesday (and we’re including their narrow Mississippi loss as a “success”) were driven by their remarkably strong performances in suburban areas. For example, Democrats’ gains in Virginia pretty much all came in suburban seats, and Beshear and Hood ran up huge margins in suburban counties compared to what the Kentucky and Mississippi maps looked like in 2015. And there was even more good news for Democrats in the suburbs in local races. We’ll take a closer look at those results in an upcoming article, in which we’ll explore the question of what these results mean for 2020.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.