*Photo credit: AP Photo/ Cliff Owen
This week, Republicans got a taste of the wave building up against them.
Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee who ran on a mix of Trump-style culture warriorism with traditional conservative economics, was demolished, losing by nearly 9 points to Democratic nominee Ralph Northam. Polls had estimated the race would be tight with an RealClearPolitics average of Northam up by only 2 points. Instead, he would lose by the biggest margin for a Republican in the state since Jim Gilmore in the 2008 blue wave.
The surprising results will certainly create huge waves, satiating Democratic worries about turnout while bringing great dread to Republicans. It wasn’t merely that Gillespie lost that is so shocking. It was that every Republican down the ballot did poorly. What was estimated to be a 5 to 8 seat loss in Virginia’s lower house, the Assembly of Delegates, ended up being a tidal wave of 15 seats flipping to the Democrats. Republicans previously had a 66/34 majority and now are looking at a mere 51/49 majority.
In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy beat Republican Kim Guadagno by 13 points and Democrats down the ballot picked up seats in the state legislature. In Georgia, two deep red state legislative seats flipped to the Democrats. In New York, Democrats cracked the solid GOP political machine in Nassau County. Pennsylvania also saw many Democratic victories, most surprisingly in Chester County where Democrats took all county wide positions for the first time in history. In Washington, Democrats took control of the State Senate and now have coveted trifectas in all of the West Coast states.
For Democrats, it was the huge rebuke of the Trump administration that they have been searching for thus far in 2017. This was especially apparent in the types of candidates who won: Virginia elected its first transgender individual to its House of Delegates; black mayoral candidates won in St. Paul and Charlotte; a member of the Democratic Socialists of America beat the Virginia House majority whip.
No doubt this was a wave, but what are the takeaways?
The Democratic Base is Energized
After questions from the past two midterms as to whether the Democratic base would turnout in a midterm, the answer is clear. With the largest victory in the governor’s race for Democrats since 1985 and turnout last matched in 1997, voter turnout for Democrats is not a problem. In Northern Virginia, the base of Democratic support in the state, the 2013 election had the Democrat win by 127 thousand votes. In 2017, Northam won it by 260 thousand votes.
For this huge loss, Gillespie actually won around the same margin of the vote, 45%, as Trump in 2016 and Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli in 2013. Cuccinelli would lose by around 2 points, and Trump by around 5. Gillespie lost by around 9. It was just that instead of voting for third parties like in 2013 or 2016, all the rest of the votes went to Ralph Northam, swarming over Gillespie’s gains in the rural areas.
The youth vote, between 18 and 29 years old, was also much better in 2017 than it was in 2013, rising from 26% to 34%, and standing at 14% of the electorate. The ones that did vote would vote for Northam by extreme margins, 69-30. Compare this to 2013 where the Democrat won only 45-40 and 2016 where Clinton won 54-36. Meanwhile, the normally stalwart Republican voters in the 65 years and older category was much worse for Republicans, voting for Gillespie by only 6 points more than Northam. A 39% margin vs a 6% margin? There’s no comparison where the energy is.
Democratic turnout was also good in a series of red county or state legislative races like in Georgia or Pennsylvania which the Democrats managed to seize. While there are some indicators of a potential realignment in areas like Erie where the Republican lost by only six points in the overwhelmingly Democratic city, the energized Democratic voters turned out in such numbers that Republicans could not capitalize on it.
The Slaughter was in Suburbs
In all the mayoral and legislative elections that went for Democrats in 2017, there seemed to be one major corelation with them all: suburbs. Once an area that Republicans could reliably compete in, the realignment of non-college educated whites to the Republican Party seems to have coincided with the exodus of college-educated affluent whites, often living in suburbs.
This was represented by the huge sweeps in the Virginia House of Delegates, the surprising Democratic mayoral victories in suburban St. Petersburg, Florida, and Manchester, New Hampshire, and the snatching of two deep red Georgia affluent legislative seats. In Pennsylvania, suburban Philadelphia delivered a decisive victory for Democrats as Chester, Delaware, and Bucks Counties swept in Democrats.
This is apparent when looking at the Virginia gubernatorial election where Gillespie, despite winning non-college educated whites 72-26, lost college-educated whites by three points when Trump won them by four. When breaking this down by gender, we can see that while Gillespie managed to win white college-educated males by eight points, he lost white college-educated females by a staggering sixteen points. And for those that may say this was also minorities voting against Gillespie, he actually ended up doing better amongst non-whites than Trump, who himself did better than 2012 nominee Mitt Romney. For all the talk about the white Trump voter in 2016, his deepest opponents seem to be white as well.
It’s a Referendum on Trump
Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said “all politics is local.” But Tip O’Neill practiced politics in the 1980s, when partisanship was not the most important thing. In the modern day, with the electorate so polarized and rhetoric being one of good vs evil, it seems more accurate to say that “all politics is national.” While one may chalk off Northam’s overwhelming victory as due to Gillespie’s divisive Trumpist campaign, it is harder to explain the huge wins in the down ballot and in other suburban areas where Republicans campaigned on popular local issues only to lose as not being due to national trends. It makes far more sense to look at the President with an average of 38% approval ratings as the reason for this.
This is reflective in Virginia as well. In 2013, the Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli was a deeply social conservative candidate with backing from the Tea Party. Ed Gillespie was a former RNC Chair during the Bush administration and establishment as it comes, even with his more Trumpist campaign. Yet Gillespie did worse in more liberal Northern Virginia and did better in rural Virginia than Cuccinelli. In other words, Gillespie ended up matching Trump’s performance.
Perhaps the best example of this election being a referendum on Trump is in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, where the popular Republican County Councilman Tom Baker was running for reelection in his suburban district. Running against him was the Democrat, a man who raised and spent no money on his campaign. Baker would end up winning, but only by a mere 150 votes. Baker did not almost lose because of his campaign. He almost lost because Democrats were angry about Trump and decided to vote straight ticket because of it.
Congressman Charlie Dent, Republican from Pennsylvania’s 15th District, succinctly put it that “Voters are taking their anger out at the president, and the only way they can do that is by going after Republicans on the ballot.”
For Republicans, It’s Going to Get Worse
Republicans were hoping to use these elections as a bellwether of how to campaign in the upcoming 2018 elections. With a result showing that voters are tying every last one of them to the unpopular President, it leaves elected Republicans in a problematic situation, even more so with the President tweeting that Republicans should wrap themselves further in Trumpism.
It’s hard to look at these results and not assume Democrats are the favorite to win the House in 2018. Election analyst Sean Trende showed how taking the Virginia House of Delegates districts that Clinton won in 2016 and adding two points is the best match for last night’s results. If one were to transfer that model to the United States House and assume Democrats win every seat that Clinton won, it would leave them only one seat away from a majority. This is hardly an insurmountable task when Democrats lead the generic ballot, an accurate indicator of results even a year early, by almost 10 points.
12 Republicans, including the above quoted Congressman Dent, have already seen the writing on the wall and have decided to retire, a number that will likely only grow as the wave becomes increasingly apparent, further reducing Republican chances of maintaining their majority and only leading to more retirements. Remaining Republicans may try a variety of tactics to save themselves from the oncoming wave. Perhaps they will embrace Gillespie’s Trumpism without Trump’s message. Perhaps they will run as more traditional conservative Republicans or moderates. But just like how the individual campaigns of local Republicans made little difference in 2017, it may prove the same in 2018.
The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. In 2009, Republicans swept the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, and in early 2010, Republican Scott Brown shockingly won the deep blue Massachusetts Senate special election to serve the remainder of Ted Kennedy’s term. Democrats in purple and red districts soon realized a wave was forming and quickly tried tactics to disassociate themselves from the unpopular President Obama. It didn’t work, with Democrats in 2010 suffering the worst midterm losses since 1938, and the Democrats who took the brunt of the losses were the moderate and Blue Dog Democrats that tried so hard to disassociate with Obama. Strategy barely mattered. A wave was a wave.
Of course, there’s one difference between 2010 and 2018. 2010 was a result of Democrats banding together and passing the biggest healthcare policy change of the generation. 2018 may be a wipeout for Republicans with only Gorsuch to show for it.