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Do Virginia and New Jersey Signal Trump’s Undoing?

Democrats are gleeful over Tuesday’s elections. They should be. They won all three statewide races in Virginia—capturing the governorship by a wider than expected margin—and won impressive state legislative gains. They switched New Jersey’s governorship from Republican to Democratic.

Pundits usually read too much into the results of off-year state and local elections. And they’re at it full force this week. They’re proclaiming these two state elections as a precursor to a massive repudiation of Donald Trump in the 2018 midterm elections.

Next year’s mid-term elections may, in fact, produce a massive repudiation of Trump. But, surmising that based solely on the results in Virginia and New Jersey is a bridge too far. Tuesday’s election returns, indeed, offered cautionary tales for both sides.

New Jersey’s Rebuke

Last year, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the Garden State by 14 points. On Tuesday, Democrat Phil Murphy beat Republican Kim Guadagno for the governorship by 13 points. On top of the state’s normal Democratic inclination, Lt. Gov. Guadagno had another really big millstone around her neck—and that was the stratospheric unpopularity of her boss, GOP Gov. Chris Christie.

One recent poll found a colossal 80 percent of New Jersey’s voters disapproving of Christie’s job performance, with only 15 percent approving. Regardless of the national context, a two-time running mate of a massively unpopular incumbent governor will always face a supremely tough task when seeking promotion to the top job, anywhere and anytime. Guadagno learned that the hard way.

It’s always a feather in the cap of a political party when they switch a governorship to their side, as Democrats did this week in New Jersey. But, finding national implications in a state race where voters wanted change after two-terms of an unpopular administration is hard to do. Despite Christie’s awkward alliance with Trump, voters in New Jersey were more intent on rebuking Christie than protesting Trump. In any case, Christie’s successor was destined to be a Democrat.

Virginia’s Turnout Wave

Virginia’s gubernatorial election was the main event. It received most of the national coverage as tea-leaf readers squint to divine its deeper meaning.

While the Democratic triumph in Virginia was by any measure impressive, and should sound warning bells for next year’s GOP candidates, it offers more limited national implications than the post-election hype would have you believe.

From one perspective, the Virginia election was less than earth shaking. All five statewide elected officials were Democrats before the election—and all five are Democrats after the election.

Because Democrat Ralph Northam’s margin of victory beat expectations, his win seemed even bigger than it was. Though polls for months pointed to a Democratic victory, only one of the final polls nailed his 9-point margin. The other twelve public polls showed a closer race, making the outcome more of a surprise.

The fact of the matter is that Virginia has become a Democratic state. It was the only Southern state that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. It went with Barack Obama twice. It hasn’t elected a Republican U.S. Senator in 15 years and three of the last four governors were Democrats. Northam’s win makes that four of the last five.

This year, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie won 45 percent of the vote, nearly identical to the percentage received by Ken Cuccinelli, the GOP’s 2013 nominee for governor. Last year, Donald Trump captured 44 percent of the vote in Virginia. The point is: Republicans haven’t been doing so well in Virginia, and the 2017 vote totals are, unremarkably, in line with that trend.

Democrats won the 2017 governor’s race by turning out Democrats—not by winning over swing voters or expanding their base. Nonwhite voters—mostly blacks and Hispanics, both strong Democratic constituencies––made up 33 percent of Virginia’s electorate this year. In the 2013 governor’s election, also won by a Democrat (Terry McAuliffe), only 28 percent of the electorate was nonwhite. This year, 28 percent of the state’s electorate was composed of self-described liberals. In 2013, it was 20 percent.

These numbers are the first concrete evidence to prove that Democrats are truly fired up, and their intense anti-Trump feelings, at least in one state, translated into higher Election Day turnout. Surely, this is cause for deep worry among Republicans as they enter the 2018 midterm elections.

However, a win based mostly on high turnout of base constituencies conceals its own weak underbelly, and that’s how Democrats, even in victory, failed to make significant inroads outside of its left-leaning coalition. In 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton won only 24 percent of white non-college graduates in Virginia. Northam––more moderate than most Democrats these days––didn’t do much better, getting only 26 percent.

Of course, while Democrats failed to expand their base in winning, Republicans failed to expand their base in losing. Both sides need to ponder that reality.

Democrats Cheer

Nonetheless, Democrats have reason to cheer. Their state legislative gains in Virginia were especially significant. They unseated at least a dozen Republican incumbents in the House of Delegates and flipped three open seats their way. These grassroots wins will give the new Democratic governor added support in the legislative arena and strengthen the party’s hand in future redistricting battles.

Another reason for Democratic delight is the potency of the healthcare issue. Exit polling indicates that healthcare—not jobs, guns, taxes, immigration, Confederate monuments or abortion—was the top voting issue in Virginia. Nearly two out of five voters picked it as their first concern.

Ever since Congress bungled efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, healthcare has taken on a new dimension as a campaign issue, giving Democrats the advantage. A Fox News pre-election poll in Virginia showed that of those voters who viewed healthcare as their top issue, Northam won it 69 percent to 20 percent. Rest assured Democrats across the nation took note.

New Campaign Model

Like Democrats, Republicans have been struggling to figure out how to campaign in the Trump era. Democrats seemed to have settled on full-throated opposition to the president in states where he’s unpopular—which is most of the country, based on polls showing him with high negatives even in states that he won. In red states, where Trump does better, the Democratic strategy is to run as populist outsiders, tapping into Trump’s magic with white working-class voters, but doing it from the left.

Republican strategists had high hopes for Ed Gillespie, a seasoned establishment figure who was once chairman of the Republican National Committee. Running as a sensible conservative with an upbeat demeanor, embracing Trumpism without embracing Trump, Gillespie test drove for Republicans what they thought could become their party’s shiny new campaign model.

Throughout the GOP primary this year, Gillespie ran on positive appeals about jobs and economic growth and resisted tying himself to Trump. As a result, he almost lost the primary to a red-meat Trump supporter. In the general election, Gillespie continued to keep his distance from the White House. But, to energize a conservative base, his campaign ads channeled Trump-style issue appeals: opposing sanctuary cities, going after MS-13, stopping violent crime and keeping Confederate monuments in place.

Had it worked, Gillespie’s approach would have become the hot new way for Republicans to win in the topsy-turvy Trump era, especially in the 2018 midterm elections. But, of course, it didn’t work. While it may have helped Gillespie bring skeptical Republicans into his fold, it may have inadvertently aided the gathering of a Democratic turnout wave against him.

Off-year elections are fun to analyze. And easy to overstate. The results of Tuesday’s elections provide both parties with useful lessons. Unfortunately for them, it offers neither a magic wand.

Ron Faucheux is a nonpartisan political analyst, writer and pollster. He publishes Lunchtime Politics, a daily newsletter on polling.

32 Comments (Open | Close)

32 Comments To "Do Virginia and New Jersey Signal Trump’s Undoing?"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 9, 2017 @ 2:33 am

Too bad we always get either Democrats or Republicans.

A Hobson’s Choice.

#2 Comment By George W On November 9, 2017 @ 7:36 am

Virginia was once a red state, then a purple one. But it has been solidly blue for at least 10-15 years. This is because of the huge growth of the federal government in Washington, DC. A large percentage of them live in Northern Virginia.

Federal workers vote Democrat about 90% of the time. They have a very socialist mentality – that they have a right to pretty much everything and that it is only proper that the taxpayers fund it.

#3 Comment By A DC Wonk On November 9, 2017 @ 8:53 am

to energize a conservative base, his campaign ads channeled Trump-style issue appeals: opposing sanctuary cities, going after MS-13, stopping violent crime and keeping Confederate monuments in place.

The thing is: we don’t have any sanctuary cities in Va (and nobody’s ever suggested one), the crime rate is pretty low, and a lot of Virginians, in the wake of Charlottesville, saw through the idea of making Confederate statues an issue worth campaigning on.

The conventional wisdom here is that such a strategy may have energized the base, it also caused a not-insignificant backlash amongst college-educated whites, possibly enough for a net loss.

#4 Comment By Mario Diana On November 9, 2017 @ 9:25 am

The Republicans may be facing trouble ahead, but I would say that the coming troubles have less to do with the president and more to do with the fact that the Republican Congress cannot get its act together. Establishment Republicans still don’t get it, as most clearly evidenced with the issue of healthcare. The failure to institute reform and repeal “Obamacare”—after years of grandstanding about how they were going to do just that—paints the Republican Congress as a bunch of incompetent boobies.

Reform failed in Congress because the Republican leaders fancied being able to cook up a bill in their backrooms and then strong-arm their “underlings” in the party. Representative government isn’t supposed to work that way—and it clearly isn’t working that way now.

The Republicans in Congress better start working with one another, and it’s up to Republican leadership to change what it’s doing. They are making a laughingstock of the party in a way that will never be matched by silly tweets.

#5 Comment By collin On November 9, 2017 @ 9:43 am

Lessons of Tuesday elections:

1) Republicans should be concerned for 2018 but it is still far enough to draw big conclusions.

2) Republicans still need suburban Bush base voters to win. Nationally, Trump did slightly win here (incomes $75K or greater) but they can not afford to lose too many.

3) Issues: opposing sanctuary cities, going after MS-13, stopping violent crime and keeping Confederate monuments in place. These are not huge issues to most voters.

4) Republicans need to find a popular version of Healthcare. It was the number one issue in exit polls. Simple repeal is not a more popular option at this point.

#6 Comment By Youknowho On November 9, 2017 @ 9:53 am

Well, Trump’s undoing will come from Mueller. The election cycle is too slow.

#7 Comment By MM On November 9, 2017 @ 10:34 am

Some pinhead was quoted over at Yahoo news:

“Flipping 14 seats from red to blue in VA is the biggest Democratic pick-up since 1899,” wrote Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Is it too soon to wonder when the Democratic Party will start tearing down its own symbols? In their enthusiasm for power, they’re literally reminiscing about the Days of Dixie!

#8 Comment By swb On November 9, 2017 @ 11:47 am

I suspect that the details of the republican tax “reform” bill will impact the voters much like their health care “reform” bill did. Of course it is still possible that republicans will continue to vote to subsidize rich folks…

#9 Comment By ADC Wonk On November 9, 2017 @ 12:10 pm

Those that are “blaming” the Dem victory on continual growth in federal employment are living in a bubble.

News flash: the number of civilian federal employees is lower than it was all throughout the 1980’s. The so-called Dulles Technology Corridor is full of tech businesses, entrepreneurs, etc. Measured by percentage of college degrees, it’s one of most highly educated areas in the Nation.

Gillespie lost college educated whites.

#10 Comment By MM On November 9, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

“Of course it is still possible that republicans will continue to vote to subsidize rich folks…”

If by rich, you mean those households that currently pay ALL net federal taxes, and by subsidize, you mean letting said households keep more of their own income, then I hope so!

They don’t even get a thank you from the Democratic Party, just slogans claiming they don’t pay their fair share, even though about 1/3 of those households lean Left.

#11 Comment By Hound of Ulster On November 9, 2017 @ 1:03 pm

Suburbia…the base of the GOP since Eisenhower, just delivered a crushing shot across the bow to the Trumpian GOP. If the D.C. Republicans, much less the GOP leadership in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Kansas, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, Ohio, Indiana, South Carolina, Colorado, and Iowa (all the states where the GOP legislative majorities are dependent on middle-class college educated white voters of the sort who rejected the Republicans across the country on Tuesday), do not heed this warning on taxes and health care, next year could see an electoral beatdown of historic proportions.

#12 Comment By Thaomas On November 9, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

I think this shows that Republicans should move to the center, embrace expanding ACA, advance making the tax system more progressive as they try to make it less economically distorting. get behind comprehensive immigration reform, etc.

#13 Comment By MM On November 9, 2017 @ 3:16 pm

“Those that are ‘blaming’ the Dem victory on continual growth in federal employment are living in a bubble.”

Not entirely. Virginia has the 3rd highest share (about 8%) of civilian federal employees in the country.

And from 2006-2014, total federal employees and *federal retirees* living in Virginia increased by 20%, or about 50,000 people.

#14 Comment By JeffK On November 9, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

I am a 60 year old former Republican. The party left me when George Bush #2 listened to Dick Cheney and the rest of the neo-cons and started the 2nd war in Iraq. Probably the worst mistake in the last 100 years. The middle east is a total mess from this horrendous decision. Let me say that I think GB2 was a decent man, but he was overwhelmed by 9/11,Cheney, and the neocons.

I grew up in New Castle, PA in the 1970’s. It was a thriving mill town north of Pittsburgh and east of Youngstown OH. I worked at the Rockwell International Axle plant and paid for my Penn State education with those earnings, working a good but physically demanding union job (7 days a week). That was one plant among many in NC that no longer exist or is a shadow of it’s former self (Shenango China, Johnson Bronze, Conn Welding, Universal Rundle, Rockwell Spring Division, etc).

I am now a semi-retired independent computer systems consultant. Lucky enough to have worked hard enough and long enough, and lived frugally, to not worry financially. I should be a natural constituent of the Republican party. But I am no longer a member. The Republican party is now dead to me.

I believe that Trump has destroyed the Republican party. Dead men (and women) walking. And many people I know feel that way. But I understand why people that live in places like New Castle and Johnstown and Youngstown voted for the man. But I also believe that they know, in their hearts, that those jobs are not coming back. Which is shameful. Both political parties allowed those jobs to go overseas.

Voters have seen through the Republicans charade. They are not happy. Without the 2nd worst political candidate in history (Hillary Clinton) to run against (although they continue to try), the Republican party is in real trouble. Trickle down tax cuts that benefit the 1% donor class will not fly with the voters. Destroying the ACA and not providing a better replacement will be dealt with harshly. Figuring out ways to make abortions impossible to maintain will enrage a significant percent of women.

The Republicans are bankrupt of ideas. And they have elected a President (Trump) that is hated by 95% of the Democrats, 80% of the Independents, and 20% of the Republicans. And the Independents are the key to who gets elected. In general, from what I can see, the independents are very dissatisfied with Trump.

Damn right the votes on Tuesday are a reflection of the will of the voters. They are voting against Trump in particular, and against the Republicans in general. Many of the people I are friends with despise Trump, and have become Independents instead of Republicans.

The current Republican policies on Healthcare, Tax Reform, International Relations, the Environment, Abortion, Gun Rights, etc will stain the Republicans for at least a generation.

Now if the Democrats can only find candidates that are moderate and acceptable to the general public. Which VA, WA, and the local races in PA seem to indicate they are capable of.

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 9, 2017 @ 3:31 pm

“Surely, this is cause for deep worry among Republicans as they enter the 2018 midterm elections.”

I agree with the overall advance here. It’s not as telling as it was touted. But the more the admin. and the President himself looks, smells and behave like Sec Clinton or other ‘run of the mill democrats,’ the more likely those who voted for him simply will not turn out to vote.

It becomes increasingly difficult to support someone who is leaving the reasons you voted for in first place. I other word it is beginning too look like there were absolutely no Republican candidates who actually support its member’s desires.

#16 Comment By grumpy realist On November 9, 2017 @ 3:46 pm

George W–so I guess that based on your comments we shouldn’t have Federal Government employees at all?

Good luck running the country, then.

(If you do an actual comparison of the salaries government employees get vs. what they could get in the private sector, you’ll note that they are in fact getting much less than what they could demand. Many of them exchange the stingier salaries for the higher pensions and the higher stability of the job. Are you saying that there is a problem with that?)

#17 Comment By KSW On November 9, 2017 @ 5:40 pm

The real news is that Dems may have also taken the Virginia state house of delegates, which has been solidly Republican in large part due to careful gerrymandering. As a result, It looks like the Dems will be in charge of redistricting after the 2020 census. I expect that after the next cycle or two, Dems will have supermajorities in both state legislative bodies, and will dominate the Congressional delegation as well.

#18 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On November 9, 2017 @ 5:52 pm

Fran Macadam says:

Too bad we always get either Democrats or Republicans.

Awe, sometimes we get Jesse Venturas or Donald Trumps. Usually even worse, but more entertaining.

Thaomas says:

I think this shows that Republicans should move to the center, embrace expanding ACA, advance making the tax system more progressive as they try to make it less economically distorting. get behind comprehensive immigration reform, etc.

But this goes against pretty much everything congressional Republicans want and a lot of what their constituents want.

#19 Comment By One Guy On November 9, 2017 @ 6:18 pm

JeffK could be writing my posts. I’m still a Republican because I believe in Republican (historical) ideas, not because I think present Republicans care about the country. I’m considering renouncing my membership in the party because of Trump, or rather, because of GOP politicians’ worship of him. I would become an Independent.

#20 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 9, 2017 @ 6:20 pm

” I guess that based on your comments we shouldn’t have Federal Government employees at all?”

I found this n odd take away from the comments. I think it explains the predictable election results. Less to do with Pres Trump and more to do with the employment demographics and poor selections of campaign issues.

#21 Comment By MM On November 9, 2017 @ 6:25 pm

“If you do an actual comparison of the salaries government employees get vs. what they could get in the private sector, you’ll note that they are in fact getting much less than what they could demand.”

According to the CBO, that’s only a true statement statement for the 9% of federal employees with a professional degree or doctorate.

For the 91% of federal employees with a high school degree, some college, or a bachelor’s/master’s degree, their average salaries are not “much less” than the average salaries for private sector employees with the same education.

[1]

Do you have a better source for your claim?

#22 Comment By morganB On November 9, 2017 @ 6:28 pm

The Democratic victories did not signal the demise of the GOP… Trump’s stupidity did!

#23 Comment By Back Home On November 9, 2017 @ 7:48 pm

@JeffK

You and I share a demographic, except I’m a hundred some miles further south. And I also left the Republicans because of Iraq and other stupid decisions made in the Middle East. I patiently await a candidate who will pull us out of the Middle East and start focusing on America. Trump obviously isn’t that guy, certainly not with all those Israel-owned Republicans in the Congress.

#24 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 9, 2017 @ 10:00 pm

Pundits usually read too much into the results of off-year state and local elections.

True. There is nothing so transitory as the Newest Trend.

Exit polling indicates that healthcare—not jobs, guns, taxes, immigration, Confederate monuments or abortion—was the top voting issue in Virginia. Nearly two out of five voters picked it as their first concern.

This may be of greater significance. Republicans seized the initiative in 2010 with horror stories of how the Affordable Care Act was GOING to work, when it went into effect about four years in the future. Now, between the fact that it actually did a fair amount of good, and that neither the GOP establishment nor President Trump have turned out “something really terrific” to replace it, people are drawing sensible conclusions, and it may be for the Dems in 2018 what it was for the GOP in 2010. Ironic, but true.

Still, I agree with Fran Macadam that its a Hobson’s choice. For the past ten years or so, polls have consistently reported that about ten percent of Americans trust Republicans in congress, and about fifteen percent trust Democrats in congress. The latter is 50 percent better than their rivals, but its that is a very low bar.

For the 91% of federal employees with a high school degree, some college, or a bachelor’s/master’s degree, their average salaries are not “much less” than the average salaries for private sector employees with the same education.

So, pay the Ph.D’s better, and cut the wages of the maintenance staff?

This is because of the huge growth of the federal government in Washington, DC. A large percentage of them live in Northern Virginia.

Perhaps, but those people voting Democratic in northern Virginia are no longer voting Democratic in Utah or Idaho.

#25 Comment By Patrick D On November 10, 2017 @ 1:39 am

Wonk,

“News flash: the number of civilian federal employees is lower than it was all throughout the 1980’s. The so-called Dulles Technology Corridor is full of tech businesses, entrepreneurs, etc. Measured by percentage of college degrees, it’s one of most highly educated areas in the Nation.”

And if we added the employees of all the “private sector” companies whose primary customers are various departments and agencies of the federal government, what would that look like?

#26 Comment By Patrick D On November 10, 2017 @ 2:14 am

morganB,

“The Democratic victories did not signal the demise of the GOP… Trump’s stupidity did!”

The neocon-laced GWB presidency signaled the Republican demise. It has been a political zombie since. DJT beat the Republican Party establishment in the primary. Then he beat the Democratic Party establishment in the general.

Remember, Trump is a “word salad”-spewing circus clown and neither the Republican nor the Democratic parties could field a candidate that could trounce a “word-salad”-spewing circus clown.

Fran Macadam is right. The Republocrat uniparty is rotten to the core and the Trump presidency is a great, flaming, undeniable symbol of that. Yet Republicans and Democrats are still in denial.

#27 Comment By MM On November 10, 2017 @ 10:32 am

“So, pay the Ph.D’s better, and cut the wages of the maintenance staff?”

Yes, and their benefits, too. When you can’t even get fired after falsifying waiting lists at the VA to cover up the causes veterans’ deaths, there should be a BIG negative premium that comes with a government job.

#28 Comment By Youknowho On November 10, 2017 @ 1:24 pm

colin

“Republicans need to find a popular version of Healthcare. It was the number one issue in exit polls. Simple repeal is not a more popular option at this point.”

Good luck with that. They had over six years to come up with one. They failed miserably. What makes you think that they will do it in time for 2018?

#29 Comment By Ellimist000 On November 10, 2017 @ 8:29 pm

MM,

“If by rich, you mean those households that currently pay ALL net federal taxes, and by subsidize, you mean letting said households keep more of their own income, then I hope so!”

Considering that these families own almost ALL of the country’s wealth why shouldn’t they pay ALL of the federal taxes? Why should anyone pay for anything that belongs to somebody else?

Also, newsflash “all net federal taxes” by itself is a meaningless statistic in the tax fairness debate and I think you know this.

#30 Comment By MM On November 10, 2017 @ 10:11 pm

Ellimist000: “Also, newsflash ‘all net federal taxes’ by itself is a meaningless statistic in the tax fairness debate and I think you know this.”

Right, because 17% of GDP paid to the federal government by 20% of households has absolutely nothing to do with “tax fairness”. That’s not a newsflash, it’s your unqualified opinion. You say it’s meaningless, but didn’t substantiate it with any independent facts. That’s strike one.

Your statement that the top 20% of households “own almost ALL of the country’s wealth” is a FALSE statement, according the the Census Bureau. The top 20% of households account for 65% of the total net worth in the country. That’s strike two.

And since you claim to know what I know, or rather, think you can read my mind, please, go ahead tell me what I think about state and local taxes, and who pays them.

Come on, make some effort this time, you don’t want to strike out, do you?

#31 Comment By MEOW On November 13, 2017 @ 9:02 am

If Trump undoes it is his own fault. Many people gave him the benefit of the doubt. He won and immediately made Hillary look like an America Firster. We needed a US president not a slave to a failed foreign ideology of interventionism.

#32 Comment By MM On November 14, 2017 @ 10:08 am

Yello, Ellimist? You’re a regular, right? Come on, I’m still waiting for a reply. Take one more swing and be a good sport!