The 2019 Elections: What To Watch For It's an off, off, off election year, but some states will still be casting votes. NPR Politics breaks down the key races to watch. This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, political reporter Jessica Taylor, and senior editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Email the show at Find and support your local public radio station at
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The 2019 Elections: What To Watch For

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The 2019 Elections: What To Watch For

The 2019 Elections: What To Watch For

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SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Quick note before we get started - we are doing a live taping of our show in Washington, D.C. So if you want to hear what we think about the latest political news or if you've just ever wondered what it's like to see a podcast taped live, join us at the Warner Theatre on November 8. Information at - hope to see you there.

ZACH HAYELL: Hello. This is Zach Hayell (ph)...

MOLLY JOHNSON: And Molly Johnson (ph).

HAYELL: ...Recording in London, England, where late last night, the U.K. Parliament decided to hold an early election on December 12. It's tough keeping up with politics on both sides of the Atlantic. But luckily, we have the NPR POLITICS PODCAST to help us out.

JOHNSON: This podcast was recorded at...


1:24 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, October 30.

HAYELL: Things may have changed by the time you hear it.

JOHNSON: Enjoy the show.


KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

JESSICA TAYLOR, BYLINE: I'm Jessica Taylor, political reporter.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: And our time stampers are preparing for an election. We are preparing for an election, but it's not the one you're thinking of.

MONTANARO: Preparing for a few of them.

KEITH: Move over, 2020. It's time to talk about 2019.

TAYLOR: Woohoo (ph).

KEITH: So on today's pod, we are talking about gubernatorial elections in Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky and legislative races in Virginia. So, Jess, why do these off-off-off-year elections matter? What can they tell us?

TAYLOR: We have seen in state races - the one place that people, even if they may vote Republican at a federal level, that they may be willing to support Democrats or candidates of a different party is on the state level because we haven't seen those as nationalized. But this year may really sort of test whether that can be the case. But I mean, sort of in the age of Trump, we're just seeing partisanship at such high levels. It's really hard to do that anymore.

MONTANARO: You know, I'm watching to see just what happens with impeachment in a lot of these states because, you know, given that this is happening right now, is it going to be something that fires up rural Republican base voters? Or is it going to fire up more of that Democratic base? In places like Kentucky, for example, you've got a lot of voters in Louisville who are going to want to get out there and, you know, see that Trump is impeached. So you have this partisanship that is pulling at the fabric of the country. And just how much is a really divisive lightning rod kind of issue like impeachment? How does that play in three pretty conservative states?

KEITH: Yeah. I was going to say that when we have the results of the voting in these three states, I'm not convinced that we're going to be able to say, and now we know how impeachment is going to play in 2020, or...

MONTANARO: No. These aren't...

KEITH: Now we know...

TAYLOR: These are really...

MONTANARO: No, these aren't swing states.

TAYLOR: Yeah. These are states that - spoiler alert - President Trump is going to win really easily in 2020. But whether voters see this as a way to sort of register their vote of support for President Trump, which, I think, is the case that he's going to be making when he campaigns in Kentucky and Mississippi this weekend...

KEITH: OK. Let's start with Kentucky. Digging in, who are the players here?

TAYLOR: So Matt Bevin is the incumbent governor, elected in 2015. You may remember him because he ran against Mitch McConnell in 2014 in the primary but then went on to become the governor later on, which was really a surprise even then. And he is actually - Kentucky, even though it voted heavily for Trump by 30 points - it's actually - but it's sort of ancestrally democratic. It's sort of - you know, it's Southern. It has Appalachia there as well. And he's actually only the third Republican governor since World War II in the state. So I mean, and the state legislature didn't shift to Republican control until 2016.

KEITH: And, Domenico, he is being challenged by Andy Beshear. That name is vaguely familiar-sounding.

MONTANARO: Yeah, because his father was the governor.


MONTANARO: That was Steve Beshear. The thing that Beshear is really trying to play up is the idea of respect. And the reason for that is because Matt Bevin is one of the lowest-rated governors approval rating-wise in the country - only 34%, according to the latest Morning Consult poll on his approval rating. And part of that is because of how he - you know, he has this sort of acerbic style, you know? He's kind of a Tea Party guy. He says what he thinks is on his mind. And because of that, he's really aligned himself a lot with President Trump because, as Jess notes, it went by almost 30 points for Trump in the presidential election. He really needs the president to pull him over the finish line.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Beshear opposes President Trump. His top supporters want to impeach our president. Matt Bevin's moving Kentucky forward.

TAYLOR: In that ad, he plays up the scare tactics. You can see these members of MS-13 gangs, like, climbing over the wall. And he says, you know, Andy Beshear stands with the illegal immigrants. He talks up how he's pro-life. And so he's really - he has nationalized this race to an extent that we typically do not see in governors races.

KEITH: On to Mississippi - this is another race that we're watching. Who are the candidates?

TAYLOR: So Tate Reeves is the lieutenant governor. He's sort of your establishment-style politician, but he's kind of wonky and nerdy. And then you have him running against the attorney general, Democrat there, Jim Hood. His ads - he's in his pickup truck. He shows him carrying his gun. He's pro-life, and so it really is a very drastic, different style there. And I think we have an ad from that too.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I bait my own hook, carry my own gun and drive my own truck.

KEITH: If you're going to run - a Democrat in a deep red state - this is how you do it.

TAYLOR: He is, like, the perfect candidate that you could create in a lab. However, this is, I think - of the three states, this is Republicans' best chance, and here's why. There's a little quirk in Mississippi. It's actually still a Jim Crow-era law that they are challenging in court but is not going to be decided in time, where a candidate has to not only win a majority of the popular vote. They also have to win a majority of the state legislative district, so it's sort of like this mini Electoral College. If they don't do that, then the race actually gets kicked to the state legislature, where Republicans have a supermajority. So that is sort of Reeves' insurance policy. And Democrats I talk to - they acknowledge it's really hard for Jim Hood, even for all of his sort of likeability and things and the fact that he has been elected statewide before, to do that.

KEITH: All right. Louisiana is the last state on our list here. And right now there is a Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards. He is up for reelection, and President Trump certainly doesn't want him to win.

TAYLOR: So Republicans sort of called him initially this sort of accidental governor. He won in 2015 against Republican David Vitter, which - if you remember him, he was tied up in this D.C. Madam prostitution scandal that really came back to bite him in the governor's race.

KEITH: So damaged goods.

TAYLOR: Damaged goods - we had the jungle primary earlier this month there. And he ended up that - he will face Republican businessman Eddie Rispone, who's kind of cast himself as this sort of Trumpian (ph) character. He actually put $11 million of his own money into the primary. So when we had the primary, this was Edwards' best shot, of course, to get a win. And Democrats actually thought that he might be able to do that. But like we've seen in so...

KEITH: Oh, wait. So stop and explain. So this is - you called it a jungle primary before. It's this weird thing where everybody's on the ballot together.

TAYLOR: Right, so everyone is on the ballot, regardless of party. He actually got almost 47% of the vote, but Democrats thought that he actually might be able to top 50 because if anyone tops 50, game over. You win. Trump came in the night before, as we've seen in so many places. He is able to just sort of gin up Republican turnout. And this really highlights what we did see - we have seen in recent elections; this increasing rural versus urban/suburban divide, that just - the rural vote in very white parishes there was really up. And Edwards really needed high black turnout especially to win. He did not get that, so that is what he has to do in order to win on the 16.

MONTANARO: These three races really are going to test the limits of partisanship in a lot of ways because John Bel Edwards is a Democrat who's a governor in the South. It's not the kind of thing you see very often, but he's been able to have this kind of record where he wants to say that he's reaching across the aisle and working with Republicans in the state, in fact, so much so that he doesn't really even talk about the fact that he's a Democrat very much.

TAYLOR: Well, and Edwards is the only Democratic governor still in this deep South, we should say too.

KEITH: We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we are headed to Virginia, closer to home here, where guns are at the center of the races that will decide who will control the legislature there.

And we are back. And let's talk about the great state of Virginia, the commonwealth.

TAYLOR: Tam and I both live.

KEITH: Yeah.


MONTANARO: And I am aware of.


KEITH: But you...

MONTANARO: I get your TV ads.

KEITH: Yeah. You live on the other side of the river, though, which is like - you know, you might as - we might as well be in different countries.

MONTANARO: I'm fascinated by the advertisements I see in these races and particularly how much they're focusing on guns. It's really amazing, considering you don't really see that as an issue - traditionally, over the years - be something that dominates as much as this year - it has.

KEITH: And what we have here are a whole bunch of legislative races. And just to put a fine point on it, last time around, there was a race that was decided by drawing names out of a bowl because it was so close. And then that actually decided who controlled the legislature.

MONTANARO: Wasn't it a film canister?

KEITH: Yeah. There were film canisters in bowls.

MONTANARO: In the bowls, OK.


KEITH: And names were in the film canisters.


KEITH: I don't even know where they found film canisters.

TAYLOR: Yes. And the issue of gun control is because Virginia has, unfortunately, been the site of several mass shootings - at Virginia Tech over a decade ago now and then just recently in Virginia Beach, where an employee opened fire at a...

KEITH: A government building.

TAYLOR: ...In a government building, yes. And so one race there in Virginia Beach, I think, is a good bellwether for not only how the night may be going for both parties but just on this issue of guns - and, of course, the National Rifle Association headquartered there in Virginia. So you have the Democrat who's a political newcomer. She was a Girl Scout leader, decided to go into politics. Her name is Missy Cotter Smasal. And she's challenging the incumbent, Bill DeSteph. And this is a district that President Trump carried really easily. But in governor and Senate races, Democrats have been there, so they really sort of see it as a swing district. And she is running heavily on the issue of guns after the shooting there.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I saw the gunman on the other end of the hallway, and I saw a co-worker in the middle. And he looked at me, and he yelled, go. So I was lucky, but not everyone was.

MONTANARO: You know, pro-gun-restriction groups are a huge story of what's happened over the last five to 10 years in political activism with mass shootings that have taken place across the country and more money now that has funneled into these groups to really become more professionalized. This is a real test case for these groups and how they mobilize, get out the vote and continue to push this issue.

KEITH: And we will be watching all of these races. Jess, you, in particular, will be watching these races on election night.

TAYLOR: Yeah, I'll be following these races for - here at You can follow me at Twitter @JessicaTaylor.

KEITH: All right. That is a wrap for today. We will be back tomorrow. Until then, keep up with all the latest updates by heading to and listening to your local public radio station or on the NPR One app.

I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

TAYLOR: I'm Jessica Taylor. I cover politics.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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