On Tuesday evening, despite polls showing a narrowing gubernatorial race between Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie in the days leading up to the election, Northam pulled off a massive victory — and more importantly, Democrats across the state trounced Republicans, putting control of the heretofore Republican-dominated House in question. Democrats have already picked up 10 seats in the statehouse and could easily pick up another seven, flipping the legislature. Meanwhile, they picked up seats in the Washington state senate, the governor’s mansion in New Jersey, and two Georgia House seats, as well as expanding Medicaid in Maine, among other gains.
Here are 10 things you need to know:
1. Virginia Was Already Moving Democratic. The 2016 map looks a lot like the 2017 map; between 2013 and 2017, Virginia moved steadily Democratic. Northern Virginia in particular has moved to the Left in radical fashion thanks to people moving in from Washington D.C. As Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics notes, “A lot of those state House seats that flipped were R seats in 2012, but were Clinton seats in 2016. They were primed to flip.” Here’s Nate Cohn’s map showing the shift from 2013 to 2017:
And here’s a map showing that 2016 looked a lot like 2017:
2. The Gubernatorial Loss Isn’t Unprecedented. Chris Donovan of ABC News points out that losing both the Virginia and New Jersey governor’s mansions isn’t unprecedented for parties in off-year elections:
3. It’s Not Clear Why Gillespie Lost. There are people who claim that Gillespie lost because he didn’t campaign militantly enough — that particularly in an off-year election, he needed to drum up the base by going hard after cultural issues. Gillespie did avoid talking about those issues, though his ad campaigns were far more militant and Trumpian. On the other hand, Gillespie’s main areas of loss were Democratic areas where people turned out in droves to vote down Republicans; as Dave Weigel of The Washington Post notes:
If Gillespie had gone full Trump — or if Corey Stewart had won his primary instead — it’s highly unlikely that the race swings the other way.
4. The Legislative Losses Are Unprecedented In Modern Times. As Jessica Post of the Democratic Leadership Congressional Council states, “flipping 14 seats from red to blue in VA is the biggest Democratic pick-up since 1899.” That’s why Republicans should be so disturbed: Gillespie’s supposed lack of Trumpian flair isn’t responsible for Republicans getting annihilated across the board. Democrats are turning out, and Republicans aren’t — at least not without Hillary on the ballot.
5. Democrats Have A Real Turnout Advantage In 2018. Ten percent more Democrats than Republicans turned out in Virginia today. That’s a disastrous number. There’s a reason for it: many Democrats stayed home in 2016, thinking that Hillary Clinton didn’t need their help, and that she was an off-putting candidate. She’s not on the ballot in 2018. But Trump’s record is, and they despise Trump. They’ll show up this time, knowing that staying home made Trump president. Polls right now have generic Democrats walloping generic Republicans by an 11% margin. Meanwhile, Trump isn’t going to drive people out to the polls when he’s not on the ballot — we’ve seen that in Alabama already, and now Virginia, too. 2020 may be a different story, but 2018 looks like it’s shaping up for disaster, which is why so many Republicans are already bowing out of House races.
6. Trump Gives Democrats Part Of That Advantage. President Trump’s approval rating is historically awful for someone this early in his term; that isn’t helping. Despite much of the base’s interest in Trump and sympathy for him, his numbers just aren’t high enough to drive winning turnout. In fact, his tendency to polarize every issue drives out Democrats: ABC News exit polling showed that “voters by a 2-1 margin said they were casting their ballot to show opposition to Trump rather than support for him. In New Jersey the margin was 3-1.” Republicans may thrill to Trump’s cultural warfare, but it can easily backfire, too.
7. Trump Isn't The Main Reason Republicans Showed Up To Vote In 2016. Many Republicans are under the dramatic misimpression that Trump boosts Republican ballot chances rather than hurting them, but the evidence simply isn’t there for that. Trump radically underperformed nearly every Republican Senate candidate in 2016. He won fewer votes than Mitt Romney did in Wisconsin; Romney lost the state, Trump won. He won fewer votes in Michigan than Bush did in 2004; Bush lost the state. Trump won because nobody showed up to vote for Hillary. But Hillary’s not on the ballot anymore, which means many Republicans will stay home; furthermore, Hillary’s absence means that more Democrats will show up.
8. Trumpism Doesn’t Exist. The person hardest hit by Gillespie’s loss is actually Steve Bannon. Bannon had been trying to take credit for Gillespie’s poll rise, stating that Gillespie had embraced Trumpian politics. After Northam’s blowout, however, Breitbart suddenly flipped and insisted that Gillespie was a “Republican swamp thing.” All of this is nonsense. Trumpism isn’t a movement. Trump isn’t a movement. Trump is Trump, and there are many people who like him. It’s that simple. You can’t imitate Trump’s positions and hope to channel his popularity — even Trump doesn’t know his positions. You can’t even mimic his aggression and hope to channel his popularity — Trump has a certain draw that virtually no one else does. The notion that Gillespie lost because he wasn’t adherent to Trumpism is a Bannon creation — and Bannon has a stake in that creation because Bannon wants to represent Trumpism sans Trump. But Trumpism sans Trump is a figment of the media’s imagination. There is no evidence for its existence whatsoever, which is why Bannon runs around the country picking candidates with no unifying agenda other than that Bannon can call them “anti-establishment.”
9. The Trumpian Unfalsifiable Hypothesis Is Gaining Steam. With the Virginia losses, those most loyal to Trump have two options: they can acknowledge that Trump is governing in unpopular fashion and that something must change, or they can blame everyone for failing to be sufficiently deferential to Trump. You can guess which way they lean. They’ve constructed a fictional universe in which everyone who loses lost because Trump wasn’t paid proper homage, and in which everyone who wins emerges victorious only thanks to the saving grace of Trump. It’s utterly evidenceless, but it’s also politically dangerous. Cults of personality don’t have a great deal of currency at the ballot box when that personality isn’t on the ballot.
10. Trump Only Cares About His Personal Power And Image. Before the election, Trump touted Gillespie. Then, just as he did after Luther Strange lost his Senate primary in Alabama, Trump dumped Gillespie under the bus, blaming his loss on his failures to kiss the ring:
This is a problem for a variety of reasons. First off, cultivating a cult of personality built around one man bodes ill for a national party — ask the Democrats who kept worshipping Obama as they lost 1,000 legislative seats across the country. Second, Trump’s willingness to dump on his own candidates could lead Republicans to stay home for those candidates — and that’s actually in Trump’s interest. If he thinks he’s going to take a serious loss in 2018, he can rip Republicans and then blame them for losing, stating that they failed to properly pay homage to him.
It’s easy to overread a single election night; it’s also possible things will change radically before 2018. But if the 2018 elections were held next week, Republicans would be rightly preparing for disaster.