Washington: US Democrats’ claim of victory in Kentucky’s gubernatorial race, as well as the Democratic takeover of the Virginia state legislature, left Republicans stumbling and increasingly uncertain about their own political fates next year tied to an embattled and unpopular president.

Many allies of President Donald Trump rushed to explain away the poor performance of Republican incumbent Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin as an anomaly, while other GOP veterans expressed alarm about the party’s failure in a state where Trump won by nearly 30 percentage points in 2016 — and where he just campaigned this week.

Was the Kentucky governor controversial?

Although Bevin was controversial and widely disliked, he was also a devotee of the president, embracing Trump’s agenda and his anti-establishment persona. And in the contest’s final days, Bevin sought to cast his candidacy as a bulwark against House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry of Trump.

But Bevin’s attempt to nationalise his cause by stoking conservative grievances about the impeachment process was not enough to overcome his problems nor was Trump’s raucous rally for the governor on Monday — raising questions about Trump’s political strength as he faces a barrage of challenges and a difficult path to reelection.

What does this mean for Republicans?

The outcome — with Democrat Andy Beshear claiming victory with a lead of several thousand votes and Bevin refusing to concede — underscored how Republicans are struggling to navigate choppy political waters as the 2020 campaign now begins in earnest. Trump continues to dominate the party, but many lawmakers are uneasy about their ability to defend his conduct and hold on to suburban support.

What about Trump?

Few Republicans, however, are willing to even lightly criticise Trump since they widely believe they will need his voters’ backing and enthusiasm in order to survive next year. Still, the Kentucky defeat has sparked concern among the party’s donors and many longtime GOP leaders who are worried that the non-stop twists of the House impeachment inquiry and Trump’s growing fury are making it increasingly difficult for Republicans to make a clear and compelling case to voters.

What are Republicans expected to do now?

“It was a rough night,” said Scott Reed, the chief political strategist for the US Chamber of Commerce. “The Republican Party is lacking message discipline, and that needs to be addressed. There is a lot of positive news around President Trump’s governing on the economy, on regulations and judges, and it seems to be overwhelmed by the drama.”

“It’s a definite shot across the bow, even though Republicans picked up the state attorney general position in Kentucky,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, referring to Republican Daniel Cameron, who became the first African American to ever win that office. “But losing the governorship is a smack at both Mitch McConnell and the president, sending up a cautionary note. Just because Trump shows up doesn’t mean an automatic win anymore.”

How alarming is the situation for them?

Allies of McConnell, the Senate majority leader, argued that Bevin’s loss did not indicate any looming trouble for him, who is up for re-election in 2020 and is working to hold the Senate GOP together amid the impeachment debate. “Republicans won every office on the ballot except [Bevin’s],” Scott Jennings, a longtime McConnell adviser, wrote on Twitter. “Some unique candidate problems. GOP brand was fine elsewhere.” Some Republicans, however, also viewed Beshear’s appeals to moderation as a sign that Republicans cannot take red-state races for granted. Instead of drifting to the left, the son of former governor Steve Beshear railed against Bevin’s divisive style and his attempts to slow the expansion of Medicaid under former president Barack Obama’s health-care law.

“Republicans look at that and say, ‘Anything could be competitive if the Democrats are going to be on their games like they were with Beshear here,’” said Republican former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. “You’re seeing Democrats building on what they did in 2018, running more moderate candidates and making sure those candidates are financed.”

Does this mean Democrats have a fair chance of winning the 2020 presidential race?

In a statement, Democratic Governors Association Chair Gina Raimondo congratulated Andy Beshear.

“Governor-Elect Andy Beshear will restore decency to Frankfort and has spent his career lifting up every single Kentuckian,” she said. “Tonight’s victory is a major pickup for Democrats and a massive rejection of Bevin’s record of stoking chaos, undermining public education, and trying to gut health care coverage.”

So has Trump lost his popular appeal?

On Monday night — less than 12 hours before the polls opened — Trump appeared at a rally in Lexington, Kentucky, to support Bevin but also made sure the crowd knew his own reputation was on the line. “If you lose, they will say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world,” said Trump, pointing at a bank of news cameras. “You can’t let that happen to me, and you can’t let that happen to your incredible state.”

Trump’s campaigning fared better in deep-red Mississippi, where Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves defeated Democratic attorney general Jim Hood on Tuesday in that state’s governor’s race.

Senator Roger Wicker said in an interview prior to the race being called that campaigns in the Deep South, including the Mississippi gubernatorial contest, have drawn attention because both parties are giving them serious attention and fielding candidates with the ability to win statewide. “We had two statewide officials running against each other and we haven’t had that in years,” Wicker said. He dismissed the suggestion that Trump’s standing could diminish. “If this race was about Trump, it’d be a 60-40 race” in Republicans’ favour.