Matt Bevin, the Republican nominee in the Kentucky governor’s race, wasn’t a very good candidate.  By all accounts, he was standoffish and ill at ease on the campaign trail, and inconsistent — to put it nicely — when it came to policy.  The Republican Governors Association, frustrated with Bevin and his campaign, pulled its advertising from the state.  Polling done in the runup to today’s vote showed Bevin trailing state Attorney General Jack Conway (D).

And yet, Bevin won going away on Tuesday night. How? Two words: Barack Obama.

Obama is deeply unpopular in Kentucky. He won under 38 percent of the vote in the Bluegrass State in 2012 after taking 41 percent in 2008. In the 2012 Democratic primary, “uncommitted” took 42 percent of the vote against the unchallenged Obama. One Republican close to the Kentucky gubernatorial race said that polling done in the final days put Obama’s unpopularity at 70 percent.

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Dear President Obama,

As someone who has been doing the whole political commentary thing a relatively short time, I have to say that you have done more for my cause than I had ever hoped to accomplish. It’s not so much that I wish the total destruction of the Democratic Party – on the contrary, the Republican Party needs an adversary to keep them to the Right (despite their leadership’s best efforts). You, sir, have neutralized the effectiveness of your party while also keeping them so entrenched in their beliefs that they cannot recover so easily

Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you for doing what I, in a thousand essays, could not do. Thank you for pushing an agenda so extreme you alienated large swaths of the American public. Their distrust in government is higher than ever and there is no effort on your part to really fix that. You just push government further into people’s lives, and it hurts them. They feel that pain and they withdraw from the government.

Thank you for leading to the rise of the conservative revolution, which has led to some absolutely great lawmakers in Congress and across the nation. You gave us Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), and many other good guys who are now standard bearers for the movement. Thank you for driving a wedge between the American people and incumbent politicians and making this happen.

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Bevin, boosted by a massive investment from national Republicans and help from his former nemisis Mitch McConnell, nationalized the race, tying Conway to President Obama at every opportunity — on coal, on school choice, on social issues, and especially on Obamacare.  Democrats have cited Kentucky as a model of the law’s success, touting its functioning exchange, improved insured rate, and the unequivocal support of the state’s term-limited governor…

Matt Bevin ran as an unflinching opponent of the promise-shattering, cost-increasing law, and pounded Beshear’s would-be successor into dust.  Democrats reacted by chalking their loss up to the “unexpected headwinds of Trump-mania,” a hilarious piece of trolling.  Also swept away by the anti-Obama current was a Democratic “rising star” seen by many as a viable challenger to Sen. Rand Paul.  Oops, again.  Bevin becomes just the second Republican governor of Kentucky in approximately four decades.  His Lieutenant Governor, Jenean Hampton, is the first non-white politician ever elected to statewide office.  A black woman. Elected by Republicans.  With Bevin’s victory, Republicans are now set to control 32 governorships, compared to Democrats’ 17 (Alaska’s independent governor was opposed by Republicans, but endorsed by Sarah Palin).  Barack Obama has proven quite adept at getting himself elected, but has acted as a one-man wrecking ball to his party’s electoral performance across all levels of government

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The results cap off yet another disappointing election cycle for Democrats since President Obama entered the White House. While they’ve managed to construct a strong coalition in presidential years, it’s conservatives who have been more motivated to turn out to the polls during both midterm and off-year elections. Since 2010, Democrats have lost control of both the House and Senate. A dozen governorships have turned from blue to red, along with many state legislative chambers.

Democrats have especially suffered Obama drag in the South. Even moderate, Blue Dog Democrats couldn’t survive: the last white Southern Democrat in the House lost last year, and Republicans flipped four Senate seats in the region last year.

The troubling sign for Democrats is that Tuesday’s rebuke didn’t simply come from the South — it was against liberal policies in more Democratic-friendly areas like Ohio and Houston.

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The news that Tea Party Republican Matt Bevin snatched the Kentucky governor’s mansion away from Democrats is a particularly stark reminder of how deep a hole Democrats have dug for themselves at the state level, and of the consequences that could have for the long-term success of the liberal and Democratic agenda…

It remains to be seen how the state battle over rolling back Obamacare will play out or whether people will actually end up losing benefits. But the loss challenges Democrats’ assumption — one also touted on this blog — that they can win on hostile political turf by successfully demonstrating how government programs can help people and pointing out that Republicans will take all that away from them. As Dave Weigel notes, Beshear had explicitly said this…

The broader point is that the Kentucky loss underscores once again that there are serious policy consequences to the profound deficit Democrats face on the level of the states. As I’ve reported, Democrats are well aware of this and are trying to something about it: it’s conceivable that by the end of this decade, the picture could look very different. But last night is a reminder of the stakes involved.

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[T]he Democrats’ culture-war strategy has been less successful when Obama is not on the ballot. Two campaigns that made abortion rights their centerpiece in 2014, Wendy Davis’s Texas gubernatorial bid and Mark Udall’s Senate reelection campaign in Colorado, fell far short. In most of the country, particularly between the coasts, it’s far from clear that regular voters are willing to come to the polls for social change. Gay marriage won four carefully selected blue-state ballot campaigns in 2012 before the Supreme Court took the issue to the finish line this year. Recreational marijuana has likewise been approved only in three blue states plus Alaska. Gun-control campaigners have repeatedly failed to outflank the N.R.A. in down-ballot elections that turned on the issue. Republicans in state offices have liberalized gun laws and restricted abortion, generating little apparent voter backlash…

To be sure, Tuesday was an off-off-year election with dismally low voter turnout, waged in just a handful of locales. But liberals who cite this as an explanation often fail to take the next step and ask why the most consistent voters are consistently hostile to their views, or why liberal social positions don’t mobilize infrequent voters. Low turnout alone can’t explain the extent of Democratic failures in non-presidential elections in the Obama era, which have decimated the party in state legislatures, governorships, and the House and Senate. Had the 2012 electorate shown up in 2014, Democrats still would have lost most races, according to Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist, who told me the turnout effect “was worth slightly more than 1 percentage point to Republican candidates in 2014”—enough to make a difference in a few close races, but not much across the board.

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Many observers expected Conway to win, in part because Gov. Steve Beshear, whose term is expiring, is a popular Democrat. Beshear’s appeal in Kentucky is exactly the kind of quirk in the political system that substantiated the old adage, “All politics is local.” In other words, the unpopularity of a national figure such as Obama in Kentucky isn’t as important as the regional, historical and individual factors that allowed a Democratic governor to succeed there…

Those local differences, however, are becoming less consequential, according to some political scientists. These days, voters are casting ballots not for individual candidates whom they like, but rather against the political parties they dislike, and the national leaders of those parties. And in Kentucky, Obama and the Democratic Party are widely disliked…

Many researchers now think that anger at and fear of the opposing party, rather than enthusiasm for one’s own party, are what motivates voters these days. As the chart below shows, while Democrats’ views of the Democratic Party haven’t changed, they see the Republican Party more negatively, and vice versa…

And Abramowitz and Webster argue that those negative emotions come from how the major political parties and the national figures who represent them are portrayed in the media, rather than voters’ personal appraisals of particular politicians in their jurisdictions. In other words, loathing leads voters to paint candidates with a broader brush.

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The Democratic Party is in much greater peril than its leaders or supporters recognize, and it has no plan to save itself…

Not only have Republicans won most elections, but they have a perfectly reasonable plan for trying to recapture the White House. But Democrats have nothing at all in the works to redress their crippling weakness down the ballot. Democrats aren’t even talking about how to improve on their weak points, because by and large they don’t even admit that they exist.

Instead, the party is focused on a competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over whether they should go a little bit to Obama’s left or a lot to his left, options that are unlikely to help Democrats down-ballot in the face of an unfriendly House map and a more conservative midterm electorate. The GOP might be in chaos, but Democrats are in a torpor…

On the Democratic side, the personal political success of Barack Obama has created an atmosphere of complacency and overconfidence. If a black guy with the middle name Hussein can win the White House, the thinking seems to be, then anything is possible. Consequently, the party is marching steadily to the left on its issue positions — embracing same-sex marriage, rediscovering enthusiasm for gun control, rejecting the January 2013 income tax rate settlement as inadequate, raising its minimum wage aspirations to the $12-to-$15 range, abandoning the quest for a grand bargain on balancing the budget while proposing new entitlements for child care and parental leave — even though existing issue positions seem incompatible with a House majority or any meaningful degree of success in state politics.

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But more and more evidence suggests that Republicans may come out as the long-term winners. As Thomas Schaller has convincingly argued, the GOP increasingly enjoys a structural advantage based on geography — suburban and rural areas, where Republicans do best, are overrepresented in Congress. Republican voters also turn out more reliably because of their stronger social networks.

Moreover, as Schaller notes, 39 of 50 US states hold gubernatorial elections in off-year or odd-numbered-year elections, when turnout is lower. John Judis has made some similar arguments about the long-term strength of Republicans.

But perhaps more significantly, Republicans are taking advantage of being in power to strengthen future electoral success

Hacker and Pierson additionally argue that voter ignorance has also helped Republicans, especially the most conservative Republicans. As they point out, there is considerable political science evidence that political messaging does mislead voters, undermining responsiveness. And, as both Schaller and Hacker and Pierson both point out, Republicans have figured out a brilliant smoke-and-mirrors strategy: Since Democrats are the party of big, especially federal, government, political dysfunction in Washington hurts Democrats. Republicans may be the instigators, but most voters don’t play close enough attention to politics to ascribe meaningful blame. They just see that they don’t like big, federal government, and Democrats are the party of big, federal government.

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But the Republican party’s dominance at the local level also presents serious trouble for Democrats in the medium term. Basically, Democrats have lost a lot of local farm teams, which makes it harder to build the organization back up…

There’s a generalized mood of distrust in government and disaffection with conventional politics across the political spectrum right now. While the parties have diverged in many ways, recent polling suggests that “if there is a unifying theme, it is anger at the political system,” The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday.

That broad anger with the larger system is at least part of the reason why a candidate like Matt Bevin, a businessman and Tea Party favorite who unsuccessfully attempted to primary GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell less than two years ago, can win, and why unconventional presidential candidates like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and, in a different way, Bernie Sanders are turning out to be more successful than most observers expected even a few months ago.

The core problem runs much deeper than any individual politician or party. It is not just the Democrats or the Republicans each have troubles, although they do. It is that politics itself is in a kind of crisis, as people on both sides of the aisle have lost faith in its ability to deliver, and are looking for alternatives outside the usual options. There is a growing sense that politics no longer works, or at least not the way it should, and is need of a broader shakeup. The party that figures this out, or the outsiders who come up with a way to productively overhaul the system, will be the first to dig a path out the hole.

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