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Do Virginia and New Jersey Signal Trump’s Undoing?

Off-year elections are fun to analyze. And easy to overstate.

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.



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