Trump poses a danger for GOP candidates, including Andy Barr

Published 6:01 am Tuesday, November 6, 2018


Guest columnist

In 40 years of writing about politics for this newspaper, I’ve never seen a run-up to an election like this one — mainly because we’ve never had a president like this one.

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Donald Trump, whose falsehoods come so fast that fact-checkers can’t keep up, has hit new lows by using troops in a political stunt to lend credence to his outlandish claims that an immigrant caravan 800 miles away is a “national emergency,” and by suggesting he can repeal the 14th Amendment’s citizenship-at-American-birth rule by executive order.

His appeals to ignorance, prejudice, fear and hatred of immigrants are designed to get his base voters to the polls, to counter a Democratic base energized by Trump’s two years of outrages. But it may be turning off Republican voters who have never embraced him and want him on a shorter leash.

An early test of that on election night will be in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, which Trump carried by 15 points but where three-term Republican Rep. Andy Barr is in a toss-up race with Democrat Amy McGrath. The race illustrates the dangers the president poses for the Republican Party.

Barr probably wouldn’t be in trouble if not for Trump. If he hadn’t won two years ago, McGrath wouldn’t have been inspired to run — and she wouldn’t be running neck-and-neck with Barr if not for the president, who scares off some normally reliable Republican voters, especially women.

That is reflected by state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr of Lexington, a moderate Republican who is running a radio ad that decries “the mess in Washington” and “dysfunction in Frankfort” — a tweak of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, made unpopular by his war with teachers. Kerr, an ex-teacher, is opposed by Democrat Paula Setser-Kissick, one of dozens of teachers running for the legislature.

Republicans will keep control of the state Senate on Tuesday, and might even keep a state House supermajority. But they’re likely to lose the U.S. House, and are pulling out the stops in races where extra effort could tip the balance. Top House leaders are visiting Barr’s district in the final week.

Speaker Paul Ryan made news when he told Larry Glover of Lexington’s WVLK, “You cannot end birthright citizenship with an executive order.”

Barr went farther, telling reporters, “I don’t think we need to change the Constitution, I think we need to secure the border.” That earned him a useful headline in the Lexington Herald-Leader: “Barr breaks with Trump…”

In an election that Trump says is about him, Barr and other Republicans who need suburban moderates have to walk a tightrope. But in their advertising, they’re in the gutter with him. Ryan’s political committee put up an ad calling McGrath part of “the liberal mob” and distorts her stated positions on a host of issues, and a new Barr ad likewise claims McGrath favors open borders and middle-class tax hikes.

Such ads fit a political culture where the top leader makes falsehoods a staple. One big question Tuesday will be whether voters will repudiate the Trump style of politics. If Barr loses, it will be a warning to Republicans that the president is not necessarily the key to political success.

Amid all this, the most refreshing ad of the season was one in the runoff for mayor of Lexington, between former council member and vice mayor Linda Gorton and former police chief Ronnie Bastin, first and second placers, respectively, in the May primary.

The race is nonpartisan — though a final Bastin mailer stresses that he is a Democrat and Gorton is a Republican — and the TV spot was bipartisan. It featured two former county party chairmen who are next-door neighbors: Democrat Eddie Jacobs, a former labor leader, and Republican Bill Roberts, a businessman, endorsing Bastin.

Roberts and Jacobs are the sort of political operatives who have long made politics work in Kentucky — people who are committed to their party and their chosen campaigns, but who are happy with just a little influence now and then, and are not in search of great power. They have mutual respect, and believe the other is a person of good faith.

(Gorton is such a person, and displayed that in handling a battery of tough questions from callers to Jack Pattie’s morning show on WVLK Tuesday. Her performance was a great example of the proverb, “A soft answer turns away wrath.”)

In an interview, Roberts decried “all the rancor and ugly talk” on both sides.

People like Jacobs and Roberts have become less important in politics, due to the influence of money, the advertising it buys and the media that get rich on the ads — and most recently, a president who debases the presidency and our political culture. Will voters endorse or repudiate him? That’s Tuesday’s big question.

Al Cross was Courier Journal political writer from 1989 to 2004.