Republicans awoke Wednesday facing a tortuous road ahead for their candidates in the 2018 elections, particularly in suburban areas where animosity toward President Trump overwhelmed his party in Tuesday’s elections.
In the northern Virginia suburbs near Washington, Democrat Ralph Northam captured 69% of the vote in winning Tuesday’s race for governor, five points better than Hillary Clinton did against Trump in the same area last November. In Hampton Roads, the southern end of an urban crescent that has helped reshape Virginia into a reliably Democratic state in presidential elections, Northam finished seven points stronger than Clinton.
The trend extended beyond Virginia: In suburbs outside New York City and Philadelphia, for example, Democrats won local races that in some cases have belonged to Republicans for decades, even generations. Although the offices were local, the Democratic candidates in several of those races campaigned explicitly as opponents of Trump.
The view from the suburbs is key because it points to the central problem for Republicans in 2018: Control of the House will be decided in large part in districts similar to those that retaliated against Trump on Tuesday. In California, for example, Democrats hope to win several Republican House seats in the suburbs of Los Angeles and Orange County.
Republicans in many of those races next year will face the same conundrum that befell the losing Virginia gubernatorial candidate, Ed Gillespie: The racially tinged, culture war themes that appeal to Trump loyalists provoked a giant backlash among moderate suburbanites and nonwhite voters.
In 2016, Trump managed to eke out a narrow victory with those themes, in part because of the deep unpopularity of his opponent. But nothing that has happened since then has contributed to turning that upset into a formula that can consistently work for candidates other than Trump himself. Exit polls in Virginia showed Northam winning almost nine out of 10 voters who disapproved of Trump’s performance in office.
“Republicans have a lot to worry about this morning,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes political races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It’s not just the fact that Northam won. It’s by how much.”
The margin — nine points, almost twice Clinton’s margin over Trump — was not due to any paucity of Republican support for Gillespie. The GOP nominee outdistanced previous Republican candidates in terms of votes earned. It just was not enough given the huge groundswell of Democratic voters.
Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., noted that Northam won six congressional districts, including two held by Republicans, who likely also would have been drowned by the blue wave had their seats been on the ballot.
“Republicans have to look at what happened last night in Virginia soberly and think about states like Nevada and Colorado,” he said. “If Democrats turn out in 2018 like they did in Virginia this year, that has to spell difficulties.”
Tuesday’s successes in upscale suburban regions don’t by any means give Democrats a lock on success next year. Virginia and New Jersey, which also elected a Democrat as governor Tuesday, have higher shares of college-educated white voters than many other states. Northam won a majority of those college-educated whites, according to the exit polls, exceeding Clinton’s support.
As Trump did last year, Gillespie won heavily among whites without a college degree. In states where those voters predominate, the lessons from Virginia may not fully apply.
Still, the results cheered Democrats as they contemplate next year’s races. The 2018 contests matter not only because they give Democrats an opening to take over the House, but also because most of the nation’s governorships will be on the ballot. The winners in most states will have a strong say in redistricting efforts after the next census, giving them power over the once-a-decade line-drawing that in some states has protected the Republican majority in Congress.
Republicans went into Tuesday’s election understanding that Trump has utterly remade their party. What became clear in the carnage that followed was that he also has remade the Democratic Party.
Candidates stung by Trump’s election — many of them women and minorities new to elective politics — swarmed into races that the party had not contested before, and voters shared their sentiments: In both Virginia and New Jersey, the percentage of voters who said in exit polls that their ballots were motivated by a desire to oppose Trump was twice as large as the share who said they were voting to support him.
The size of the Democratic victory, unexpected even by most party strategists, was not limited to the two governor’s races.
In Virginia, Democrats won all three statewide positions and, pending recounts of several legislative races, could potentially take over the lower house of the state legislature which Republicans controlled 66-34.
Elsewhere, Democrat Vi Lyles will be the first African American woman to serve as mayor of Charlotte, N.C., and Democratic women also won mayor’s races in Seattle and Manchester, N.H.
The irony in Tuesday’s results: Trump has spent his administration trying to undo whatever his predecessor President Obama did. Yet one year after his shocking presidential victory, he finds himself in Obama’s position in off-year elections: unable to pull his party’s candidates over the finish line due to the rabid opposition he inspires.
Still, if Tuesday’s results show a template for future Democratic success, the party’s divisions remain — and could complicate their 2018 races.
Virginia represented something of a best-case situation for Democrats. The more liberal candidate who lost to Northam in the primary, former Rep. Tom Perriello, endorsed his opponent immediately and campaigned continuously for him.
On the national level, tensions from last year's primaries between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders have still not completely healed. That was evident in the reaction to the accusations last week by former Democratic National Committee chief Donna Brazile that the Clinton campaign had unfairly controlled the party apparatus during those contests.
And issues like immigration continue to split the party between more moderate candidates, like Northam, on one side, and more strident activists on the left. In one sign of those tensions, Northam’s election night celebration was temporarily disrupted by protesters carrying a sign reading “Sanctuary for All,” a reference to the Northam campaign’s equivocation on supporting so-called sanctuary cities in the last weeks before the election.
Still, Republicans clearly took the worse of it on election day 2017, and for those studying the ashes, there was no clear path to reversing the forces that created Tuesday’s defeats.
Trump succeeded in 2016 by maximizing anger at politics as usual and distaste for his Democratic opponent. But since his election, he has continued to stoke that anger, keeping his most ardent backers mobilized, but taking no steps to widen his support.
For Republicans, the president’s widespread unpopularity is a problem without a clear solution.
“The ball is chained around their ankles whether they want it to be or not,” Kidd said.