LEXINGTON, Ky. — The governors’ races in Kentucky and Mississippi that will be decided on Tuesday have been closer than expected. They have also, like so many things, become largely about President Trump, who has directly injected himself in support of his fellow Republican candidates.
Those candidates, Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi, have enthusiastically welcomed Mr. Trump’s help even as he faces an impeachment inquiry. For all the turmoil in Washington, Mr. Trump still enjoys approval among voters in both states, a fondness that the Republican candidates hope is contagious.
Though they are running in some of the reddest states in the country, Mr. Bevin and Mr. Reeves have faced stronger than expected opposition from their rivals, in both cases Democratic state attorneys general — Andy Beshear in Kentucky and Jim Hood in Mississippi.
Mr. Trump’s last-minute rally for Mr. Bevin in Lexington on Monday night, which filled the usually Kentucky Wildcat-blue Rupp Arena with Louisville Cardinal-red “Make America Great Again” hats, could be particularly important, said Al Cross, a Kentucky political commentator and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
Mr. Cross noted that Mr. Bevin, a brash investment manager and former Army officer who is seeking a second term, is not particularly popular — one poll ranks him the second most unpopular governor in the nation. But Mr. Trump still is a galvanizing presence for his supporters. And with few voters clued in to an off-year election, Mr. Cross said, “It’s important to have that final push from el jefe.”
Mr. Bevin, 52, became a first-time political officeholder after winning a 2015 campaign in which he marketed himself as an outsider intent on bringing business-friendly values to the state. The victory was an important one for Republicans, who have dominated presidential elections in Kentucky elections in recent years, but whose success in governor’s races lagged.
As governor, Mr. Bevin has seemed to relish attacking those who have criticized or pushed back on his agenda, Democrats and Republicans alike — and, perhaps most significantly, public-school teachers. When educators walked off the job last year to oppose budget cuts and proposed changes to teacher pensions, Mr. Bevin called protesters “selfish” and “ignorant,” blaming them for the shooting of a young girl and accusing them of creating the opportunity for child sexual assaults by leaving children unattended at home.
The harsh language echoes the style of the president, whom Mr. Bevin has enthusiastically defended in the face of the impeachment inquiry, calling it an “absolute travesty” and using it to attack Mr. Beshear.
But it earned a reliable constituency for Mr. Beshear, 41, who has made the governor’s attacks on teachers the focus of his campaign. He has released ads stringing together Mr. Bevin’s harsh words toward educators or featuring a teacher at her second job as an Uber driver. Educators have become the campaign’s essential foot soldiers, knocking on doors by the thousands, doing anything they can to oust Mr. Bevin.
“There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of activism,” said David Patterson, a spokesman for the Kentucky Education Association, the teachers’ union. “I think there’s a lot of folks out there that support educators and don’t want to see them denigrated or put down.”
But that may not be enough in a state that overwhelmingly supported Mr. Trump in 2016 and where Mr. Beshear’s stance on abortion and his party’s stances on all kinds of things — including the president — run counter to the mainstream. It is not hard to come across voters in Kentucky who are unenthusiastic about their options on Tuesday, turned off by Mr. Bevin personally and by Mr. Beshear because he is a Democrat.
“Bless his heart, Bevin does a lot of things I disagree with,” said Dr. Rachel Short, 46, a doctor of family medicine in Lexington, who was standing outside the Trump rally on Monday night. “But sometimes you’ve got to choose between the better of two evils.”
Mr. Trump had visited Mississippi on Friday, railing against his enemies in Washington and calling the impeachment inquiry “a hoax” at a rally in Tupelo. Austin Barbour, a Mississippi Republican campaign strategist, said the choice of Tupelo, in northeast Mississippi, was a good one: Mr. Hood, the Democratic candidate, hails from that part of the state, and it is full of white voters who vote Republican in presidential races but are still comfortable voting for conservative Democrats like Mr. Hood for statewide office.
Mr. Hood is an anti-abortion Democrat whose ads show off his homespun Mississippi bona fides, with his truck, his guns and his hunting dog all taking star turns. But Mr. Trump’s visit may very well remind voters in places like Tupelo of the inescapable fact that he is a member of the party of Pelosi, Schumer and Ocasio-Cortez.
Mr. Trump made the point explicitly in an October tweet that noted Mr. Hood’s 2016 support for the presidential candidate Hillary Clinton: “Jim Hood will never give us his vote, is anti-Trump and pro-Crooked Hillary,” Mr. Trump wrote.
“To have the president remind people, ‘I’m for Tate Reeves, he’s the conservative and I appreciated his support in 2016 when his opponent supported Hillary Clinton in 2016’ — that’s a major litmus test in 2019,” Mr. Barbour said.
Rick Rojas contributed reporting from Atlanta.