Last night’s gubernatorial election in Virginia is being touted as a surprise Democratic landslide. It shouldn’t be; the results simply reflect the changes that have occurred in national politics since Donald Trump’s emergence. That’s not great news for Republicans, but neither is it a death knell. Both parties still face the challenges their changing voter coalitions present.
Democratic governor-elect Ralph Northam won largely because Virginia is a highly educated state with a sizable minority population—and both groups have been trending strongly toward Democrats for years. Exit polls show that he ran only slightly ahead of Hillary Clinton’s margins among college-educated whites, whites without a college degree, and non-whites. A combination of greater Democratic enthusiasm, and less GOP enthusiasm for nominee Ed Gillespie among non-college-educated whites, increased Northam’s margins slightly. But Virginia is now a strongly Democratic-leaning state, and Republicans can win statewide only if they run campaigns that appeal to non-conservative, college-educated voters.
Nor should one take the Democratic gains in the Virginia House of Delegates as proof of a Democratic surge. The generally reliable Daily Kos elections team calculated presidential-level election returns for every Virginia House seat well before the election. Hillary Clinton carried 17 of the 66 seats the GOP held coming into the 2016 election; Barack Obama had carried 12. The fact is that the Republican super-majority was on shaky ground already. Thirteen of those shaky seats fell to Democratic challengers last night. Democrats lead in the race for two other seats by narrow margins, and Clinton won less than 50 percent for both of the two seats that Republicans either won or currently lead in. The Democrats picked up only one seat that Trump had carried, and he barely won it, by less than 1 percent. The surprise is not that Republicans lost most of these seats but that they had held the vast majority of them for so long.
Still, these losses are discouraging for Republicans, because seats like these are the basis for much of their congressional and state-legislative majorities. Democrats need to gain 24 seats to pick up a narrow U.S. House majority next year; Clinton carried 23 Republican-held seats. Democratic candidates have held on to former Republicans who voted for Clinton in both the Virginia elections and in the special election held in Georgia’s sixth congressional district in the summer. Any Republican running for a Clinton-carried House seat is now on notice that he or she will have a hard time winning unless the political climate dramatically shifts.
On the other side, however, and as Democrats learned to their dismay last year, America is not solely composed of well-educated, affluent suburbs. The untold story (at least in the mainstream media) from last night is how well the Trump coalition held up under fire. Republicans who voted for Trump in 2016 largely came out and voted straight Republican tickets yesterday. If such party discipline holds next year, it will be enough to see the GOP through in states more representative of the country than Virginia.
Gillespie matched Trump’s margin among whites without a college degree last night. His problem? They were only 26 percent of the electorate, down from 29 percent in 2016. But in Pennsylvania, for example, whites without a college degree were 40 percent of the vote, and in Ohio, 43 percent. The fact that Gillespie, the worst-performing Republican running statewide in Virginia last night, could match Trump’s margins with this key group bodes well for Republicans challenging Democratic incumbent senators in Montana, North Dakota, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio next fall. Put another way, if last night’s Virginia results were projected onto these states, Republicans would have an excellent chance of picking up all five senate seats.
But another race last night shows the challenges those Republicans will face in attracting such voters. Maine voters, by a 59-41 percent margin, endorsed expanding Medicaid in accordance with Obamacare. Maine went for Clinton last year, 48-45, though Trump carried Maine’s rural second congressional district, a bastion of whites without college degrees. Polls have long showed that these voters support broad-based entitlement programs like Medicaid much more than traditional Republicans do, and they showed that again last night. According to elections analyst Harry Enten, only three of 112 Maine towns that Clinton carried opposed Medicaid expansion; even 139 of the 339 Trump-carried communities supported it.
Herein lies the Republican challenge. The voters that traditional Republicans want to win (upper-income suburbanites) have been moving away from the party for years, and they’re fleeing it now, in the Age of Trump. Downscale whites will vote Republican, but they want different economic policies than the GOP has offered in the past—what Trump promised, that is, not what Speaker Paul Ryan is selling. If the GOP reaction to last night’s election is to back Trump nominally, while ramming through a tax cut that does little for the voters that the party depends on, 2018 could turn out to be much worse for Republicans than last night’s results portend.
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