As Georgia’s secretary of state, Republican Brian Kemp became known for investigating a nonprofit group that made a major voter-registration push focused on registering the state’s large and growing non-white population. He also removed more than 1 million names from the state’s voter rolls. In both cases, Kemp argued that he was trying to do whatever possible to prevent voter fraud. But his moves added complexity to the voting process in Georgia while also potentially benefiting his political party, since non-white voters in Georgia overwhelmingly back Democrats.
Seeking a promotion to governor this year, Kemp distinguished himself from the other candidates in a crowded Republican primary field in part with two signature ads. In one, to show his support for the Second Amendment, Kemp holds a gun in his lap, pointing it at a teenage boy who wants to ask one of Kemp’s daughters on a date. In another, he suggests he might use his truck to pick up and deport illegal immigrants. Kemp later cast himself as a “politically incorrect conservative.”
Introducing FiveThirtyEight’s governor forecast
At least one other politically incorrect conservative liked what he saw. The primary went to a runoff, and ahead of it, President Trump sent out a tweet endorsing Kemp. The secretary of state proudly touted that backing in the final days of the campaign and credited Trump with his eventual victory.
Republican gubernatorial candidates Ron DeSantis in Florida and Kris Kobach in Kansas have similar stories: Both had at least dabbled1 in Trump-style politics before running for governor, moved further in that direction to win GOP primaries this year, and were eventually endorsed by the president over more establishment opponents, which helped lift them to victories.
All three are now in close races. They could lose in November — in part because of a backlash to their Trumpish approaches.
Trump endorsed other gubernatorial candidates, but in DeSantis, Kemp and Kobach, we get, I think, the purest tests of how Trump-style politics is faring at the state level. In 2016, Trump won the GOP presidential primary as a different kind of Republican, with racial rhetoric and policies that appealed to white people wary of the country’s growing racial diversity. But he won the general election because voters largely treated him like any other Republican. As John McCain and Mitt Romney did, Trump carried the white vote by double digits and won about 90 percent of the Republican vote. At the same time, neither black nor Latino voters turned out in unusually large numbers to cast ballots against him — he didn’t do substantially worse among those groups than the two previous GOP presidential candidates.
Taking that same path to victory in this year’s general election is looking fairly complicated for DeSantis, Kemp and Kobach.
Let’s start with Kobach in Kansas. The state’s electorate is more than 80 percent white, so the racial dynamics are less relevant here. Kansas is far more Republican-leaning than Florida or Georgia, so the GOP nominee for governor probably should be safe, even in a Democratic wave election.
But Kobach has a big problem: Unlike what happened with Trump nationally, Republicans in Kansas aren’t lining up en masse behind him. Kobach is controversial, because he has been one of the leading figures in Republican efforts, in Kansas and nationally, to limit illegal immigration and impose additional requirements on people before they can vote. A bloc of Kansas Republicans has said he’s too divisive to lead their state and is trying to stop him.2 About two dozen current or former GOP state legislators, a former Republican U.S. senator and two former Republican governors have endorsed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Laura Kelly, a state senator. FiveThirtyEight’s governors forecast shows Kobach as a 2 in 3 favorite3 — pretty underwhelming odds for a Republican in a ruby-red state.
That Kelly could win in Kansas is not as shocking as it might seem. Americans vote along party lines much less at the state level than they do in congressional elections, which helps explain why the Democrats have a slight chance of winning the gubernatorial contest in conservative Oklahoma and the Republicans are big favorites in the blue states of Maryland and Massachusetts.
It’s possible that gubernatorial candidates in 2018 will have a harder time executing the Trump playbook simply because partisanship is weaker at the state level.
Republican partisanship in Kansas in particular also has another problem: Sam Brownback. And that has nothing to do with the president or Trump-style tactics. Brownback served as Kansas’s governor from 2011 until earlier this year, when he stepped down to take a post in the Trump administration. Brownback’s almost total embrace of Republican orthodoxy on cutting taxes and spending4 left the state’s schools with far less funding than even some Republican lawmakers and voters wanted. Brownback was one of the most unpopular governors in the country by the time he left office — and Kelly and Democrats are linking Kobach with the former governor.
Kobach’s response to the closeness of the race has been to double down on Trumpism. Earlier this month, Trump flew to Topeka for a rally in support of Kobach, with the Kansas Republican promising to “do for Kansas what President Trump has done for America.” We’ll have to wait to see whether that gambit works.
In Florida, DeSantis has taken a more traditional approach: rally the base for the primary and then appeal to the center in the general.
During the primary, DeSantis, who served in Congress from 2013 until stepping down in September to focus on his gubernatorial campaign, employed a strategy of showing as much fealty to the president as possible. On Capitol Hill, he pushed a bill that would have stripped funding from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump and potential ties to Russian election interference and aggressively highlighted his opposition to so-called sanctuary cities. One of DeSantis’s campaign ads featured he and his daughter playing with blocks while DeSantis’s wife explained that the candidate was teaching the girl how to build Trump’s border wall.
After the primary, however, DeSantis abandoned this Trump-centric approach and took steps that could appeal to more moderate voters. He tapped a Cuban-American woman, state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, as his running mate. He cast himself as a defender of Florida’s business community against his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum, who has proposed raising the state’s corporate tax rate. DeSantis’s TV ads are now largely focused on attacking Gillum’s record as mayor of Tallahassee; they mostly don’t mention the president.
How’s the Trump playbook going for him?
Republicans in Florida have embraced DeSantis: He is getting around 90 percent of the GOP vote in polls, and there is no sign of the kind of resistance among Republican elites that Kobach faces.
DeSantis is also winning among Florida’s white voters, but he’s probably not far enough ahead of Gillum among that group to get elected (Trump won Florida’s white voters by more than 30 percentage points). DeSantis may be hoping that an appearance by Trump at a rally with him later this month will boost his standing among white, culturally conservative voters (even though it could hurt him with millennials and minorities). I interpret this as a move of some desperation by DeSantis, since he was trying to move past this impression that he is a mini-Trump.
DeSantis also has a potential problem with the third part of Trump’s winning general-election formula: avoiding a large increase in minority voters who overwhelmingly oppose him.
Gillum, who is black, has said that he will win in part by boosting turnout among black, Latino and young voters. And DeSantis’s embrace of Trump and some of the president’s more controversial allies, which may have been necessary for DeSantis to win the primary, could help Gillum drive up minority turnout by casting his opponent as racially intolerant. A day after winning the GOP primary, DeSantis said in a Fox News interview that “the last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.” I’m not sure whether DeSantis meant this to be a racial comment, using the word “monkey” in his campaign against a black candidate. If so, it also did not fit with DeSantis’s strategy of moving past Trump-style tactics in the general election.
Gillum’s allies seized on the remark, saying that it was clearly racist. And it was difficult for DeSantis to easily rebut this charge, because of his alliances with people who at times use racial and at times racist language, including the president. DeSantis recently distanced himself from a one-time supporter and major donor who in a tweet criticizing former President Obama wrote, “FUCK THE MUSLIM NIGGER.” A recent poll showed DeSantis getting 1 percent of the black vote in Florida — even less than the very small levels of support Republicans usually get in the state.
DeSantis’s challenges are exacerbated by the fact that, unlike Georgia or Kansas, Florida is a true swing state. So even if he had run a perfect campaign, DeSantis could end up losing the gubernatorial contest simply because he is running in a more Democratic-leaning year than Trump did. Gillum is a 4 in 5 favorite, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast.
In Georgia, Kemp also has to be wary of a wave of anti-racist voters rejecting him. Like DeSantis, he has generally sought to move to the center in the general election. His TV ads are now about his career in construction before he entered politics and his pledge to make Georgia the best state in the U.S. for small businesses. He isn’t pointing guns at teenagers anymore.
I don’t want to overstate Kemp’s shift. His Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, favors allowing undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to be granted college scholarships through a state-funded program. Kemp is attacking her for this stance, arguing that the policy would bankrupt the program. It almost certainly would not, but Kemp’s attack essentially positions Abrams as in favor of giving more state money to Latino kids. Trump has not campaigned with Kemp in the general election, but Donald Trump Jr. has.
Kemp, like DeSantis, is facing a racial problem from his past. As secretary of state, Kemp implemented a program that flags voter registration applications if the name differs in any way from Social Security or driver license records. The Associated Press reported this month that the registrations of 53,000 Georgians have been put on hold under this program. Of that group, about 70 percent are black.
As Kemp has noted, the 53,000 people can vote on Election Day if they bring identification to the polls that matches what it is on the voter registration application. But Georgia voting-rights advocates had long warned that such a program might make it harder for some people to vote. Whether that was Kemp’s goal at the time this policy was implemented or not, I doubt that he wanted this controversy to erupt now. Abrams has seized on the controversy, arguing that it is the latest example of Kemp resorting to “voter suppression.” And Abrams has connected this most recent debate over voter records to Kemp’s aggressive scrutiny of the liberal group trying to register voters, which was run by Abrams.
The controversy has been extensively covered on local news in Atlanta and nationally. Being cast as racist on the eve of the election is potentially a huge problem for Kemp. Polls suggest that Kemp is getting 90 percent of the Republican vote and has a huge lead with white voters. But Abrams is only a 4 in 9 underdog. And she can probably win if two things happen: 1) turnout is high among black people, white liberals and younger voters and 2) some moderate, white voters — particularly women who are turned off by Trump and associate Kemp with him — either don’t vote or back Abrams. That is an entirely realistic scenario.
If only because of the conservative leans of their states, Kemp and Kobach are still slight favorites, while DeSantis is trailing in Florida. But all three of these men could lose — and that’s an illustration of the challenges of Trump-style politics. The president himself won a somewhat fluky victory that probably had a lot to do with Hillary Clinton and James Comey. It’s not clear he can win in 2020. I wrote last year about how Kentucky’s Republican governor, Matt Bevin, was borrowing from Trump’s playbook — attacking the media constantly, for example — but had been more effective than the president in executing his agenda. But Bevin recently pushed through changes to the state’s pension program for teachers that they largely opposed. Then he attacked educators for protesting the move, something Trump might have done. He is now very unpopular and could lose next year’s gubernatorial election in deep-red Kentucky.
Trump himself and some of the white identity politics he and other Republicans are increasingly advancing may be electoral winners now and in the future. Or that all could be something that worked only on one random day in November 2016. The results this November in Florida, Georgia and Kansas will give us a first glimpse of the answer.