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President Trump Bet Big This Election Year. Here’s Why He Lost.

The New York Times logo The New York Times 11/18/2019 Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman
Donald Trump et al. standing in front of a crowd: President Trump visited Louisiana on Nov. 6, 2019, to endorse Eddie Rispone, the Republican candidate for governor. Mr. Rispone lost to Gov. John Bel Edwards. © Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times President Trump visited Louisiana on Nov. 6, 2019, to endorse Eddie Rispone, the Republican candidate for governor. Mr. Rispone lost to Gov. John Bel Edwards.

WASHINGTON — When President Trump showed up in Louisiana for the third time in just over a month to try to help Republicans win the governor’s race, he veered off script and got to the heart of why he was staging such an unusual political intervention. His attempt to lift Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky to victory this month had failed, Mr. Trump explained, and it would look bad for him to lose another race in a heavily Republican state.

“You got to give me a big win, please, O.K.,” the president pleaded with a red-hatted crowd last Thursday in Bossier City, La.

But on Saturday night, Mr. Trump’s wager backfired in spectacular fashion.

Not only did Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, win re-election by more than 40,000 votes, he did so with the same coalition that propelled Governor-elect Andy Beshear to victory in Kentucky and that could put the president’s re-election chances in grave jeopardy next year. Like Mr. Beshear, Mr. Edwards energized a combination of African-Americans and moderate whites in and around the urban centers of his state, building decisive margins in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport.

It was a striking setback for a president who proclaimed himself his party’s kingmaker in last year’s midterms, but has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to pushing his chosen candidates to victory in general elections. And it continued a November losing streak that included not only Mr. Bevin’s loss in Kentucky, but a wave of state and local Democratic victories in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Missouri that also were driven by suburban voters.

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The results in Kentucky and Louisiana are particularly ominous for the president, in part because they indicate that his suburban problem extends to traditionally conservative Southern states and may prove even more perilous in the moderate Midwest next year.

They also reveal political weakness for the president at a moment he is embroiled in a deepening impeachment inquiry and desperately needs to project strength with his own party. And as he enters what will likely be a difficult re-election campaign, the two states emphatically demonstrated that he has become just as much of a turnout lever for the opposition as with his own supporters.

“If you had any doubt that Trump was a human repellent spray for suburban voters who have a conservative disposition, Republicans getting wiped out in the suburbs of New Orleans, Louisville and Lexington should remove it,” said Tim Miller, a Republican strategist and outspoken critic of the president.

The Louisiana results are a stinging rebuke for the president, because he spent so much time there and because Trump allies couldn’t chalk it up entirely to local factors as they did for Kentucky, where Mr. Bevin was deeply unpopular. And even before the Louisiana race was called on Saturday night, finger-pointing from the Capitol to the White House to Mr. Trump’s campaign broke out about why he spent so much political capital on the race in the first place.

Mr. Trump carried Louisiana by 20 points in 2016, so the outcome of the governor’s race carries no implications for his own re-election, the balance of power in Congress or the president’s policy agenda. And the moderate Mr. Edwards has relentlessly cultivated Mr. Trump, showing up at the White House every chance he gets — so it was not even an opportunity to defeat a critic.

Some of the president’s advisers were mystified, therefore, that the White House would repeatedly send him to a state irrelevant to his re-election for a candidate he scarcely knows, Eddie Rispone, after they had just been scalded in their attempt to rescue Mr. Bevin in another safely red state.

In Congress, Louisiana lawmakers and their aides grumbled that Mr. Trump was not being shown quality polling indicating how formidable Mr. Edwards was with Republican-leaning voters. And some in the delegation pointed a finger at Louisiana’s voluble junior senator, John Kennedy, who has become a close White House ally, for pushing the president to campaign in the state.

But the president was receptive to Republicans who told him he could be the difference-maker in these elections, according to G.O.P. officials briefed on the discussions.

One of those people said that Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, had been preparing the president for the past two weeks for the possibility of a Louisiana loss. That’s because early voting patterns showed Democrats mobilizing their core voters, especially African-Americans.

Mr. Trump’s supporters defended him, noting that Republicans won down-ballot in Kentucky and captured the Mississippi governor’s race, while arguing that he would benefit from a polarizing opponent next year.

“The gubernatorial results in 2019 in Kentucky and Louisiana are in no way a referendum on President Trump or a foreshadowing of the 2020 presidential election,” said the R.N.C. spokesman Mike Reed. “The Democrats who ran for governor in those red states aren’t anything like the far-left candidates running against President Trump.’’

Still, the main instigator for the president’s involvement in the races, many Republicans said, was Mr. Trump himself, who simply craves the adulation of his supporters and is singularly focused on notching victories, no matter the details. He is even more eager to flex his political muscle in the face of impeachment, and has surrounded himself with several aides who either defer to his whims regardless of the neon-flashing signs of risk before them, or know little about politics.

People close to Mr. Trump — who spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive matters — said he viewed the campaigns he had weighed in on mostly as opportunities for gratification. And with few seasoned political advisers in his inner circle — his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has control over the president’s campaign, has never worked on another race — there was nobody to tell him that attacking an anti-abortion rights, pro-gun Democrat like Mr. Edwards as a radical would be folly.

“There were people who are normally part of the Republican base who voted for the governor,” said Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, noting that the portrayal of Mr. Edwards as a liberal extremist was ineffective given his views on cultural issues and credentials as a West Pointer turned Army Ranger. “He’s a very likable man and a man of character.”

Of course, plenty of well-credentialed and well-liked candidates have fallen prey to the forbidding political demographics of their states or districts.

What was different in Louisiana was that Mr. Edwards enjoyed a huge spike between the all-party primary last month and the Saturday runoff among the voters who Mr. Trump most alienates: While turnout grew modestly in many of the rural areas, it jumped by 29 percent in New Orleans and 25 percent in the parish that includes Shreveport, and it was nearly as high in Baton Rouge and in the largest New Orleans suburbs.

In that context, Mr. Trump’s two appearances in the state between the primary and runoff had the effect of motivating the Democratic base as much as it did the conservative one.

"Forcing Trump down people’s throats in television, mail and radio produced a backlash among Democratic voters, especially African-Americans,” said Zac McCrary, a pollster on Mr. Edwards’s campaign, alluding to Mr. Rispone’s Trump-centric message. “The intense negatives outweigh the intense positives for Trump, which speaks to the turnout.”

State and local Democrats were more careful targeting their message, linking Mr. Rispone to Mr. Trump on radio stations with black audiences and in tailored mailers. But Mr. Trump’s engagement also prompted organic efforts, including some from liberals who aren’t exactly enamored with Mr. Edwards but wanted to send a message of their own from Louisiana.

One New Orleans Democrat took matters into her own hands and created an Instagram account, @youcanringmybel, that sought to rally reluctant progressives for Mr. Edwards.

“We don’t love him but we need him,” said the site’s creator, Marcelle Beaulieu. “Rispone has made the entire campaign about national politics and Trump,” she added, and that annoyed many voters.

The former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile, a native of the New Orleans area, said the only other time she had been able to nudge her entire extended family to go to the polls was to support former President Barack Obama in 2008.

”Donald Trump just has the same effect of pushing people out the door when they would prefer to stay home,” said Ms. Brazile. “I’ve never seen folks more unified.”

Mr. Trump, of course, is not the first president to be faulted for his party’s losses. But few have so openly invited the risk of being blamed for them.

“Donald Trump just happens to relish this centrality more than most,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist, “and has a tendency to say the quiet part loud, sometimes to his detriment.”


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