LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin is about to get a dose of the most potent campaign stimulant in Republican politics: an election-eve visit from President Donald Trump.
Trump’s Monday rally for the governor is the latest stop in a traveling road show the president has put on over the past year, traversing red states and congressional districts to bail out struggling Republican candidates and juice GOP enthusiasm and turnout just hours before the polls open. Bevin and his Democratic challenger, state Attorney General Andy Beshear, were deadlocked in the last public poll of the campaign, which Bevin has tried to nationalize to take advantage of Trump’s popularity in Kentucky.
Never one to miss an opportunity to collect credit, Trump has recently boasted that his last-minute visits won the GOP a contested congressional seat in North Carolina in September and held Louisiana’s Democratic governor well short of the majority he needed last month to avoid a runoff.
But that isn’t just the president’s typical bravado. Even Democrats acknowledge that Trump’s 11th-hour rallies give the GOP a temporary boost — like a perfectly timed, electoral sugar high. House Democrats pointed to Trump’s last-minute rally as a factor in their close loss in North Carolina, and the chief strategist for Democrats’ most famed special election victor of the Trump era still wonders what might have happened if Trump had stopped in the state the day before the election.
“You look at polling data, and you see a single-digit bump for the Republican tends to happen” when Trump visits, said Joe Trippi, a strategist for Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), when asked about the strategy in Kentucky this year. “It dissipates really quickly, which is probably why they’re bringing them in the day before.”
“It makes me wonder — if he had come in the Monday before — whether it would have made a difference in our race,” Trippi recalled.
For Bevin, Monday’s Trump rally will go beyond motivating the people who show up in person. It could help him cut through the din of a TV advertising barrage blanketing many of the state’s 10 media markets not the governor’s race and other competitive campaigns. And, in some cases, that means wall-to-wall coverage: The CBS affiliate in Lexington is bumping some of the network’s primetime programming Monday evening to air the rally in its entirety.
As the campaign has lurched toward the finish line, Republicans are confident Bevin has pulled ahead in a rebuke of national Democrats’ impeachment push and a statewide Democratic ticket with legacy candidates like Beshear.
“We’re gonna win,” Bevin told reporters outside a campaign event this weekend in Eastern Kentucky. “It’s just a function of by how much — that’s really what it boils down to.”
Trump’s last-minute rallies have been remarkably effective at helping Republican candidates running in friendly territory, though there are some limits to the strategy. Republicans aren’t deploying Trump, whose national approval ratings are poor, to blue or battleground states. Ahead of Tuesday’s state legislative races in Virginia, the GOP sent Vice President Mike Pence instead of the president.
But after Dan Bishop, a Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina, narrowly won a special election back in September, Trump and his campaign were quick to claim that he had made the difference.
The president parachuted into Fayetteville, N.C., for a last-minute campaign rally, held the night before the Sept. 10 special election. And the day after Bishop’s 2-point victory, Ronna Romney McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, said on television that Bishop’s win was “directly as a result of the president coming in and doing that rally.”
“The most valuable commodity that we have as a campaign is the president’s time,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director. “And he wants to go places where he knows he can make a difference.”
There’s evidence to back up team Trump’s assertions. Bishop outperformed the 2018 GOP candidate, Mark Harris, in rural areas, including those around Fayetteville, even as he lost ground in Charlotte and the close-in suburbs on the other end of the district.
And Democrats wouldn’t dispute Trump’s impact. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said in an election-night statement that “it took more than $6 million in outside Republican spending and a last-minute Trump rally” for Bishop “to scrape by in a district” Trump carried by nearly 12 percentage points in 2016.
Over the first three years of Trump’s presidency, his political operation has honed its strategy, seeking to deploy the surrogate-in-chief at the optimal time. Trump isn’t undefeated as a campaigner: In December 2017, he went to the Florida panhandle for a campaign rally the Friday night before Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in a special election in Alabama. Then, in March 2018, Republican Rick Saccone lost a special election for Congress in Western Pennsylvania to Democrat Conor Lamb, despite a Trump rally in the district on the Saturday night before the Tuesday vote — though Saccone's loss was closer than pre-race polling showed.
The pilot for the night-before strategy might be another red-state special election for the Senate in Mississippi last year. Trump held rallies in Tupelo and Biloxi — on opposite ends of the state —the day before a runoff between then-appointed GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and her Democratic opponent, former Clinton cabinet secretary Mike Espy.
Jordan Russell, Hyde-Smith’s campaign manager, said Hyde-Smith did “extremely well” in both areas the next evening and credited Trump for the boost.
“There’s no question the president coming out the night before is going to help your turnout, even at the margins,” Russell said.
For Trump, Monday’s rally at the University of Kentucky comes in the middle of a series of events to propel GOP candidates in three red-state gubernatorial races this month. Last Friday, he traveled to Mississippi to campaign with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who is the favorite in Tuesday’s election against Democratic state Attorney General Jim Hood.
And on Wednesday, Trump will head back to Louisiana to stump with Republican businessman Eddie Rispone, who finished second in last month’s primary to make the runoff against Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. They go head-to-head before voters on Nov. 16.
In Kentucky, Beshear, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, is confident Bevin won’t get a late Trump-driven surge. Asked at a campaign event this weekend whether he is worried about Trump dragging Bevin across the finish line, Beshear demurred.
“We believe the people of Kentucky know that a governor doesn’t have an impact on federal issues,” Beshear said. “And they know that this race is not about what’s going on in the White House — [it’s about] what’s going on in each of their houses.”
But when a reporter asked Beshear about what The New York Times has described as Bevin’s “Joe Namath-style guarantee” of victory — a reference to the famed Jets quarterback who pledged his upstart American Football League squad would defeat the more established Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III — Beshear chuckled but declined to offer a similar prediction.
“Well, unlike Gov. Bevin, I’m out there earning it every single day: crisscrossing this state, running on what we plan to do,” he said.
Bevin, meanwhile, says voters are “fired up” for Trump’s visit and predicted a “big, festive, fun time” at Monday’s rally — which he hopes will boost the typically low turnout in off-year elections the following day.
“It actually reminds people that tomorrow is Election Day,” said Bevin. “So that’s good. No matter how people vote, it’s good for them to get out and let their voice be heard."