For the GOP, Last Night's Elections Could Mean it's Every Man for Himself
Though it may feel to many of us as though the 2016 elections took place just yesterday, one year has passed since President Trump defeated Secretary Clinton and the GOP retained majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. For politicos, this anniversary can mean only one thing: off-year elections in a small number of states that can be used as an unscientific proxy of the country’s mood one year into a new administration.
Voters returned to the polls yesterday in Virginia and New Jersey to elect new governors; in New York City’s mayoral race; in Maine and Ohio to cast votes in statewide referendums; and in Utah’s 3rd Congressional district to elect a successor to the seat of former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who left the House of Representatives to join Fox News as a contributor.
The morning after the first significant elections since President Trump’s victory last fall, the general narrative in the press is that voters largely rebuked President Trump, affording the Democratic Party an excellent election night. On the surface, the results seem to support this view: Virginia, a swing state, and New Jersey, with its incumbent Republican Governor, Chris Christie, resoundingly sent Democrats to their respective Governor’s mansions. In Maine, voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum on expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to about 80,000 low-income Mainers, despite fierce opposition from the state’s GOP Governor, Paul LePage. Diving deeper into last night’s results, however, demonstrates just how significant a victory Election Day 2017 was for the Democratic Party – and just how worried the Republican Party should be heading into the 2018 midterm elections.
In Virginia last year, Secretary Clinton beat then-candidate Trump by about five percentage points. Last night, Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie by about eight percentage points. In other words, one year into the Trump administration, a not-terribly-well-known Democratic gubernatorial candidate outperformed an incredibly well-known Democratic presidential candidate by three full points. Turnout – a key deficiency the Democrats identified in their 2016 postmortem – was historic. Approximately 2.6 million Virginians voted yesterday, as compared to 2.2 million in the governor’s race four years ago. The total popular vote in a Virginia gubernatorial election had never topped 2 million prior to 2013.
The youth vote was another concern for Democrats coming out of the 2016 elections. The chasm – and resulting bad blood – between supporters of Secretary Clinton and proponents of Senator Sanders had many Democrats worried that young voters, disenfranchised by what they perceived to be a rigged primary, would desert the party. If Virginia is representative of the broader United States, the Democratic Party appears to need not worry on this front any longer, based on exit polling:
The Democrats appear to not only have welcomed young independent voters back into their tent, but also to have converted about 8% of young Republican voters into their ranks, as well.
Yet another positive sign for Democrats – and a troubling sign for Republicans – was that the Democrats’ strong showing trickled down ballot. Heading into last night, the GOP held about a 2-to-1 majority in Virginia House of Delegates. This morning, pending recounts and final vote tallies, the Democrats find themselves having taken at least 14 seats from the GOP and on the cusp of potentially having won 17 seats, which would give the Democrats a majority in Virginia’s lower chamber from the Republicans for the first time in two decades. Prior to last night, Democrats hadn’t swung more than just five House of Delegates seats in one election night since 1975. Even the qualitative data suggests a repudiation of Trump-era politics: Democrat Danica Roem last night became the first openly transgender person to be elected to a state legislature when she defeated incumbent Republican Delegate Bob Marshall, who, during his tenure in Richmond, authored bills that would have restricted the bathrooms transgender people can use, defined marriage as between one man and one woman, and banned gay people from openly serving in the Virginia National Guard. (Stacie Laughton, a transgender candidate in New Hampshire, won election to the statehouse in 2012 but the election was invalidated before she took the oath of office.)
There can be little question, then, that last night can be interpreted as the result of an immense mobilization of Democratic voters in response to President Trump’s first year in office. The open question for the White House now becomes: To what extent does last night’s political shellacking translate into increased obstacles to enacting the President’s policy agenda? Republican members of the House and Senate representing states and districts that are even borderline purple will undoubtedly view last night’s results as an imminent threat to their re-election. Some of these Republicans will join the ranks of Senators Corker (R-TN) and Flake (R-AZ) and the nearly two dozen House Republicans who have announced that they will retire rather than seek re-election. Those with stronger stomachs, intent on keeping their jobs, will conclude that the only path to victory next November is to put as much daylight between themselves and the White House as possible over the next 12 months. These members of Congress will seek to use defining votes to split with the West Wing and send a strong message to their constituents that they are not Trump Republicans.
And so, the headlines this morning are spot-on in that it was a bad night for the White House, but they have missed the more important and immediate implication: The impact of last night’s election results likely will translate into the diminished ability of the President to enact any kind of policy agenda – an ability which has already been challenged. Support for the President’s policies, from tax reform to infrastructure to nominations, just became even more elusive. And, don’t look now, but the federal government will shut down in one month if Congress and the White House don’t agree to a funding bill, and, barring Congressional intervention in raising or suspending the debt limit, the United States will default on its debt in January.