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Five lessons from this week's election (and why Democrats can't celebrate yet)

A lucky bit of timing placed President Trump in Asia as voters in Virginia, New Jersey and several other states delivered drubbings to his party’s candidates in Tuesday’s elections. Rather than respond to panicked Republicans and questions from reporters, Trump could bask in the fulsome flattery laid on by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the lavish welcome provided by China’s leader, Xi Jinping.

Trump delivered one broadside at the losing Republican candidate in Virginia, writing in a tweet that Ed Gillespie “worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for.”

That was untrue — Gillespie’s advertising campaign embraced Trump’s themes fully, a fact that Trump’s allies took credit for right up until election day — and also bad analysis. In a state that Hillary Clinton won last November, a closer embrace of Trump would surely not have helped. Indeed, the key lessons from Tuesday’s election are almost the opposite of what Trump suggested.

I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.

FIVE LESSONS FROM A LOSS

1. As Noam Levey wrote, healthcare now powers Democratic wins after a series of elections in which it fueled GOP campaigns. This pattern has been visible all year: Each time the debate over healthcare has dominated the headlines — in early spring when House Republicans introduced their Obamacare replacement bill, late in the spring when the bill passed the House and in late summer when it hit the Senate floor and failed — Trump’s support has declined. In Virginia, roughly four in 10 voters said healthcare was the top issue motivating their vote; they voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate, Ralph Northam.

That reality has put Republican lawmakers in a vise: A powerful faction of their voters and top donors demands that they repeal the Affordable Care Act, but a large majority of the country insists they shouldn’t. If Republicans turn one way, they risk disappointing party activists. Go the other way, and they mobilize swing voters against them. Either way imperils the GOP House majority in next year’s midterm election.

2. The suburbs are in revolt against Trump, as Cathy Decker wrote. Last year, Clinton’s strategists counted on gains among upscale, college-educated suburbanites to offset what they knew would be losses in white, working-class parts of the country. They fell short in large part because the losses in working-class areas were deeper than they expected. But even with Clinton’s deep unpopularity, she did make major gains in suburban counties in metropolitan regions from Southern California to Houston, to Atlanta and north to Philadelphia.

On Tuesday, with Clinton not on the ballot, those gains were more tangible. Outside Philadelphia, for example, Democrats seeking local offices campaigned explicitly as anti-Trump candidates. They won, taking county posts that had been held by Republicans for a century. Similarly, Democrats took control of county governments in suburban counties outside New York City that had been Republican strongholds for most of the past 60 years.

3. Trump still holds the deep loyalty of his core voters, who make up between a quarter and a third of the electorate nationwide but a much higher share in many Republican-majority districts. But as Michael Finnegan wrote the day before the election, a small but significant slice of Trump voters are disappointed by his presidency, and they threaten the GOP.

Trump’s job approval has waned slowly, but steadily all year, and part of that decline stems from independents and other less partisan voters who have soured on him for a variety of reasons: His behavior, which some voters had hoped would change once he was elected; his position on healthcare; and the perception that he’s not getting much done have all contributed to that decline.

That sentiment has put more Republicans at risk. One example: In the aftermath of Tuesday’s voting, Democrats added California's Rep. Tom McClintock to their list of Republicans targeted in 2018.

That’s one reason Republican leaders are so keen to pass a tax cut bill — in order to show they can get something done. Unfortunately for them, the tax cut, itself, would actually raise taxes for a lot of middle-income voters over the next 10 years. It’s not particularly popular, although it has not generated the sort of visceral opposition that the healthcare bill attracted, at least so far.

4. Gerrymanders can be two-edged swords. Despite losing three consecutive statewide general elections, Republicans in Virginia held 66 of the 100 seats in the House of Delegates, the lower chamber of the state legislature, going into Tuesday’s election. After the last census, Republicans controlled the state government and, as they did in several other states, drew legislative lines that hugely favored their party.

Tuesday, Democrats won at least 15 new seats. With three still up in the air, pending recounts, a tied House or one with a one-vote Democratic majority, remain significant possibilities. The winners included an extremely diverse slate of candidates including the first transgender woman elected to Virginia’s legislature, who defeated a Republican who had championed legislation opposing transgender rights.

How did Democrats overcome the gerrymandered lines? The trick of a gerrymander is to spread your side’s voters out among as many districts as possible, while concentrating the other side’s in as few as possible. The risk is always that if the political tides shift, your side will be spread too thin. The greedier a party is, the greater that risk, and no clever computer algorithm can make that risk go away entirely. Virginia Republicans were greedy, and Tuesday, the bill came due.

That doesn’t mean gerrymanders have no power, however. Overall, Democratic legislative candidates won 9% more votes than Republicans on Tuesday. They won’t end up with nine more seats.

5. And yet, for all the reasons Tuesday’s results are positive for Democrats, Virginia isn’t Ohio. Or Wisconsin. Or Iowa. Or even North Carolina, its neighbor to the south.

To win control of the House next year, Democrats need to pick up 24 seats. There are 23 Republicans who represent districts Clinton carried. Democrats almost surely won’t knock off all 23 of those incumbents. So they need to win several places Trump carried in order to regain the majority, let alone the presidency.

As a new study of election results by the liberal Center for American Progress showed last week, winning almost certainly requires improving among white, non-college-educated voters, who have been turning steadily away from Democrats for more than a decade. Democrats’ ability to pull that off remains unproven.

TRUMP’S ASIA TRIP

In Beijing, Trump shifted blame for trade imbalances away from China and onto his predecessors, as Noah Bierman and Brian Bennett reported.

In South Korea, he adopted a more conciliatory tone toward North Korea, offering “a path to a much better future” if Pyongyang agreed to talks.

But, as Don Lee reported, none of the Asian leaders Trump has met with has offered concessions on trade, a point that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly acknowledged. Trump and China's President Xi have formed a personal bond, White House aides say, but there’s little sign that Xi has given Trump much other than elaborate courtesy. Meantime, average Chinese see Trump as a symptom of American decline, Matt DeButts reported from Beijing.

Friday, in Vietnam, Trump delivered an “America First” trade message, saying the U.S. will cut deals only with individual nations, not multilateral groups, Bierman reported. At least so far, however, there’s little sign of other nations rushing to the negotiating table.

Meantime, Trump’s visit to Vietnam has reopened old war wounds at home.

TAX BILL MOVES FORWARD

The House Ways and Means Committee approved one version of the tax cut bill on Thursday, and the House leadership plans to bring that measure to the floor next week. In the Senate, Republican leaders proposed a significantly different version, which would postpone a cut in the corporate tax, keep the estate tax and scrap deductions for state and local income and property taxes, a blow to residents in high-tax states, notably California, as Lisa Mascaro and Jim Puzzanghera wrote.

Sarah Wire looks at why California's GOP members of Congress didn’t fight on the tax bill the way East Coast Republicans did.

Prospects for the tax cut passing both houses remain uncertain, especially in the Senate, where Republicans, with just 52 votes, have little room to maneuver.

Their two-vote cushion would be cut in half if Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate, were to win in next month’s special election in Alabama.

The chance of that happening increased substantially Thursday when the Republican, former state chief justice Roy Moore, was hit with allegations that he molested a 14-year-old girl years ago. Given Alabama’s big Republican majority, Jones remains the underdog, but if Moore stays in, as he has vowed to do, the race has gotten much tighter.

OTHER NOTABLE STORIES

Another Trump campaign aide acknowledges meeting senior Russian officials in mid-2016, David Cloud reports on Carter Page’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross faces accusations that he lied about his wealth, Don Lee reported.

The administration is ending protections for thousands of Nicaraguan migrants, but deferred a decision on Hondurans and signaled more flexibility than immigrant advocates had expected, Joe Tanfani reported.

Their clout diminished, Silicon Valley firms abandoned a fight over an anti-sex-trafficking bill, Evan Halper reported.

Signups for Obamacare insurance coverage have surged in the first days of this year’s open enrollment, Noam Levey reported.

L.A. TIMES/USC POLL

Californians strongly oppose Trump, in fact, 53% say the state's members of Congress should “never” work with him, Cathy Decker reported.

And in the race for Senate, Dianne Feinstein holds a strong lead for reelection. The race for governor has tightened, but Gavin Newsom remains in the lead.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS

Twitter has long been Trump’s favored means of pushing his message. We’re compiling all of Trump’s tweets. It’s a great resource. Take a look.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

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David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter

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