Voters in four US states elect governors as Trump looms over polls

US President Donald Trump greets supporters during a campaign rally at the Rupp Arena, in Lexington, Kentucky, on Nov 4, 2019.
US President Donald Trump greets supporters during a campaign rally at the Rupp Arena, in Lexington, Kentucky, on Nov 4, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - Voters in Kentucky and Mississippi head to the polls on Tuesday (Nov 5) to choose their next governors in two close races, while Democrats in Virginia look to flip the handful of legislative seats they need to take full control of that state's government.

The election results will be closely scrutinised for clues to how next year's presidential contest will unfold.

While none of the four states voting on Tuesday - New Jersey also has legislative elections - is likely to be up for grabs in November 2020, the outcomes could offer an early measuring stick for the Democratic candidates eager to deny Republican President Donald Trump a second four-year term.

In Kentucky and Mississippi, where Mr Trump won easily in 2016 and remains relatively popular, the Republican candidates have nationalised the races as much as possible by tying themselves to the president.

The same is true in Republican-leaning Louisiana, where early voting has started ahead of the Nov 16 gubernatorial election pitting incumbent Democrat John Bel Edwards against Republican challenger Eddie Rispone, a staunch Mr Trump backer.

Mr Trump held a rally in Lexington, Kentucky, on Monday evening to support Republican Governor Matt Bevin, who is trying to overcome anaemic approval ratings to defeat Democratic Attorney-General Andy Beshear.

Mr Trump's speech to thousands of supporters was an explicit attempt to make the Kentucky governor's election a referendum on his presidency as he tries to survive an impeachment probe in the Democratic-led US House of Representatives.

Kentuckians need to re-elect Mr Bevin, said Mr Trump, or else pundits will say: "Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world... You can't let that happen to me."

The visit followed a speech Mr Trump delivered in Mississippi last Friday, where the Republican lieutenant governor, Mr Tate Reeves, is running against Democratic Attorney-General Jim Hood.

'NATIONALISATION'

Polls show both Mr Beshear and Mr Hood have a chance to score an upset despite their states' Republican leanings.

 
 
 
 

Mr Bevin is perhaps the country's least popular governor, according to opinion polls, after damaging battles with labour unions and teachers. But he has taken a narrow lead over Mr Beshear in recent weeks after staunchly defending Mr Trump against the impeachment inquiry.

In Mississippi, where Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, is barred by term limits from running again, Mr Reeves holds a small edge in polls over Mr Hood, a moderate Democrat who opposes abortion and favours gun rights.

The Virginia contest has drawn heavy attention and money from both parties. Independent analysts say Democrats are slightly favoured to erase the razor-thin margins Republicans currently hold in both chambers of the state legislature.

Former vice-president Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential front runner, visited Virginia over the weekend to campaign with several statehouse candidates, and Republican Vice-President Mike Pence held a rally last Saturday.

Other Democratic presidential contenders, including US Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, have also campaigned with local candidates.

Notably, Mr Trump has avoided Virginia, where Democrats found success in suburban swing districts in last year's congressional elections. Tuesday's election could offer a test of whether the anti-Trump surge that tipped those districts remains potent.

"You're seeing this nationalisation happen," said Mr Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst at the University of Virginia's Centre for Politics. "These states are good tests for that."