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The Kentucky and Virginia elections were all about Trump. That's bad for Republicans.

The country’s most polarizing president has turned campaigns that usually hinge on nonpartisan issues like traffic into ones between acrimonious political camps.
Juli Briskman shows her middle finger as a motorcade with President Donald Trump departs Trump National Golf Course in Sterling, Va., on Oct. 28, 2017.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file

Races for a seat on the Loudoun County, Va., Board of Supervisors don’t usually attract national media coverage. At most, The Washington Post’s Metro section might publish a short piece about an especially notable contest to help govern the sprawling exurban county west of the nation’s capital.

Juli Briskman changed that on Tuesday.

Trump’s unprecedented intrusion in regional votes meant his unpopularity drove several red and purple localities to become blue.

The former government contractor, 52, won a seat on the nine-member board in Virginia’s fourth-most populous county. By Wednesday she had appeared on CNN in prime time and had done several more national media hits. Topics weren’t Loudoun County’s notorious traffic gridlock, affordable housing shortages and other local problems. Instead, Briskman got asked repeatedly about a photo from two years earlier that captured her flipping off President Donald Trump’s motorcade as it departed Trump National Golf Course near her home — and now soon-to-be constituency as a county supervisor.

The photo went viral, making Briskman a hero to the Trump resistance but toxic to her employer, a technology firm that soon fired her. She decided to run for office in 2019 and beat a Republican incumbent, due to what she called raging voter hostility to Trump. “I believe that was a factor at every level,” Briskman told CBS News.

Briskman’s fast-rising media profile reflects the nationalization of even the most local of races in the Trump era. The country’s most polarizing president in modern times has had the effect of driving elections usually decided on nonpartisan issues like traffic and development into ones between distinct and divergent political camps.

Across the country Tuesday, Trump’s unprecedented intrusion in regional votes meant his unpopularity drove several red and purple localities to become blue. The results suggest the U.S. political system is, in a sense, flattening out — fewer races are getting decided on the merits of local issues and regional proclivities. Rather, partisan and tribal voting habits emanating from Washington are now setting the tone in contests for county supervisor, city council, school board and a range of other local offices, with ills like more spending and harsher rhetoric coming with them.

The off-off-year contests saw Democrats take over both chambers of Virginia’s legislature for the first time in a generation, narrowly win bright-red Kentucky’s governorship (though the incumbent Republican still hasn’t conceded) and, in Pennsylvania, make significant gains in areas long dominated by Republicans, such as professional-class and blue-collar suburbs around Philadelphia.

Even with a Republican in the White House, the effect of nationalizing the race was a liability in many red states, most notably Kentucky. The president vocally backed Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s reelection bid, though the incumbent was burdened with the lowest approval ratings of any chief executive in the country due in part in repeated fights with teacher’s unions and endorsing policies and politics associated with Trump. His Democratic rival, state Attorney General Steve Beshear, emerged the “apparent winner,” per NBC News, in a race decided by less than 5,200 votes.

And just to the east in Virginia, Trump played an outsized role in spurring Democratic turnout, which figures to be considerably higher than the 29 percent that came out for the 2015 and 2011 elections. While it’s always difficult to establish a direct cause-and-effect pattern in electoral politics, anti-Trump fervor clearly helped juice Democratic enthusiasm in a state where the party has already made strong political strides over the past 13 years. In winning control of both legislative chambers and the governorship this year, Democrats across the commonwealth linked Republican challengers to Trump.

To be sure, Trump also affected local races to the GOP’s benefit. Republicans held onto the Mississippi governorship, an office Democrats had high hopes of capturing despite being in a ruby-red state. Three days before the election, Trump held a rally with Republican nominee Tate Reeves, the lieutenant governor, who had tightly embraced Trump tightly during the campaign and went on to win the governorship 52-47 percent.

And not all nationalization of local races is due to Trump. In the internet age, previously sleepy local contests can easily attract significant external attention. For Democrats in 2019, Texas’ 28th state House district became a cause célèbre of sorts. National Democratic activists cited the suburban district west of Houston as an important first step in claiming the nine seats necessary to win a state House majority. Money poured into the campaign coffers of Democratic candidate Eliz Markowitz, who finished first in all-party voting on Tuesday and is now headed to a runoff with a Republican rival.

The nationalization of these kinds of legislative races comes amid heightened awareness for both parties about the importance of state-level contests. On the right, groups backed by the Koch brothers are increasingly targeting them, with environmental regulations, union rules and other issues hanging in the balance. Democrats, meanwhile, are eager to make legislative gains to avoid the kind of redistricting disaster that befell the party after the 2010 midterm elections, which left Republicans in position to redraw substantial portions of the nations’ political maps.

Not all nationalization of local races is due to Trump. In the internet age, previously sleepy local contests can easily attract significant external attention.

These additional factors mean the 2019 elections are likely the new template for American politics, with local contests increasingly affected and swayed by national trends and issues whoever is in the Oval Office. Trump’s successor can be expected to have a similar if perhaps more muted, effect on such races. And while it’s easy to bemoan the increasingly tribal nature of this increasingly partisan politics, it’s not all a bad thing. Anything that spurs voter turnout and gets citizens involved in civic affairs is a positive.

This year, it’s clear that Trump had an outsized influence on the off-off-year elections, largely to the benefit of Democrats in Kentucky, Virginia and a smattering of other states where local offices were on the ballot. With increasingly polarized politics and global communication now the norm, local officials like Juli Briskman — spurred to run for office by national political concerns — could become the rule, rather than the exception.