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Opinion Virginia bloodbath: Trump is exorcising the Democrats’ midterm curse

Democrat Ralph Northam won the Virginia governor’s race over Republican Ed Gillespie on Nov. 7. Here are some other takeaways from the state’s election. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post, Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)


Among the big questions going into yesterday’s elections were these: Would President Trump’s unique combination of racism, authoritarianism and embrace of unpopular GOP policies energize Democratic voters sufficiently to overcome their tendency to stay home in off-year elections? And would Trumpism rev up Republican voters enough to keep pace with or possibly supplant that energy?

We now have resounding answers to both questions: Yes, and no. Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie in the Virginia gubernatorial contest by 54 percent to 45 percent, a decisive rout by any measure.

Democratic pollsters tell me the results are causing them to rethink basic assumptions about next year’s elections. In interviews, they pointed to two major factors (among others) in yesterday’s victory: Northam’s larger-than-expected share of the college-educated white vote (a factor of persuasion) and the off-the-charts turnout relative to previous off-years (a factor of energy and engagement).

Northam hauled in more than 1.4 million votes — nearly 340,000 more votes than current Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) won in 2013. This was driven in part by massive turnout in suburban and exurban areas heavily populated by college-educated whites: Northam ran up substantially larger vote totals than McAuliffe did in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, the Northern Virginia suburbs of D.C., and in places like Chesterfield and Henrico counties, around Richmond. At the same time, nonwhite voters may have represented a slightly larger share of the electorate, relative to 2013.

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Geoff Garin, Northam’s pollster, told me the campaign’s internal polling confirmed that Trump is driving Democratic energy. “Democratic voters are more engaged than ever, and as a result, they’re showing up,” Garin said, adding that Democratic voters and Dem-leaning independents are “engaging in politics more,” out of dismay at the “division and divisiveness” that Trump is creating and out of a sense that “existential things are occurring in this country.”

“The enthusiasm gap is real, and the likely voter universe in 2018 is going to be substantially different from 2014,” Garin said. “There will be higher off-year turnout with Democratic voter groups, and I doubt that will be matched to any significant degree by what happens among Republican voters.”

Gillespie attempted a double game: using Trumpist race-baiting appeals to energize the deep-red southwestern counties — Confederate statues, tattoo-festooned immigrant MS-13 gang members — while playing the temperamentally safe establishment Republican to reassure swing and more educated suburban voters. At bottom, this was a test of whether Trump-era Republicans can avoid alienating more educated constituencies while galvanizing Trump voters who crave something more than the usual plutocracy peddled with limited government platitudes. As Brian Beutler says, Gillespie papered over this problem by combining “the Chamber of Commerce’s policy agenda” with “an overlay of toxic racism and xenophobia.”

But Garin says the double game failed. “There was a very negative reaction among college-educated voters and swing voters generally to his MS-13 ads,” he said. Meanwhile, some polling had shown the race-baiting might have energized Democratic constituencies. Gillespie’s strategy did allow him to run up enormous margins in deep-red counties. But preliminary analyses suggest he was unable to drum up the enthusiasm levels seen in Democratic strongholds. At the same time, Northam edged Gillespie among college whites, outperforming Hillary Clinton among them by six points and defying predictions by Gillespie’s pollster, who insisted that Gillespie’s immigration appeals were working on those voters.

To be sure, Democrats did not meaningfully improve among working-class white voters, and this is something to worry about: GOP-held House districts with a lot of those voters could still be an obstacle to Democratic hopes of taking back the lower chamber. And a lot can change between now and the 2018 elections, so Democrats can hardly count on their edge in enthusiasm holding — they’ll have to not lose sight of how high the stakes are for the country of unchecked Trumpian rule.

But the Democratic edge among college-educated white voters, and the surprisingly juiced-up turnout, suggest trends that could have a big impact next year. “You start to rethink the ceiling on the number of college-educated whites that Democrats can get,” Nick Gourevitch, a pollster for the Democratic Governors Association, told me. “That changes the map.”

* WATCH FOR A DEMOCRATIC FUNDRAISING AND RECRUITMENT SURGE: Politico reports that Democrats expect last night’s results to unleash a surge of energy directed at 2018:

Democratic leaders … [are] now expecting a fundraising and candidate recruitment surge, powered by grass-roots fury at the Trump administration. … After Northam’s win, New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, chairman of House Democrats’ campaign wing, immediately started calling potential Democratic House candidates who were on the fence about whether to run.

You’ve got to think that good potential Democratic candidates who were watching last night’s results closely will now be emboldened to take the plunge.

* MAINE APPROVES MEDICAID EXPANSION. MORE TO COME?: Maine voters yesterday approved a ballot referendum opting into the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion by 59 to 41, and NPR comments:

The measure is seen as a bellwether for continuing support of the Affordable Care Act, even as Republicans have tried repeatedly to unravel the Obama administration’s signature health care bill. The vote would bring Maine, which has been hit hard by the heroin epidemic, in line with 31 other states that have expanded their state programs. An estimated 80,000 Maine residents will qualify.

One question now is whether similar referendums will be approved next year in places such as Nebraska and Utah, which would mean voters going around GOP lawmakers.

* REPUBLICANS REALIZE TRUMPISM IS NOT MAGICAL ELIXIR: The Washington Examiner reports that Republicans are realizing that their defeat should get them to rethink the magical potency of Trumpism:

In retrospect, Republicans say, Trump’s focus on culture war memes, such as demanding that the National Football League bench players who kneel during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice, as well as Gillespie advertising that stoked cultural anxieties, overshadowed the president’s economic message, and Gillespie’s personal focus on the issues.

As one Virginia Republican put it, “Democrats turned out tonight” in repudiating Trumpism, but “I’m pretty sure there were some Republicans who spoke loudly and clearly tonight as well.”

* GOP STRATEGIST: ‘THE TRUMP MESSAGE IS A BIG LOSER’: Republican strategist Mike Murphy offers his take on last night’s results:

“We now know what a lot of us in the party already knew: The Trump message is a big loser in swing states and he hurts the G.O.P. far more than helps … Suburban voters don’t like Trump and his antics energize Democrats. The myth of Trump electoral power will now start to melt. A wildly unpopular president is a big political problem for the G.O.P. in swing states.”

Good to hear, but if a lot of people in the party already knew this, why did Gillespie run a campaign saturated in Trumpist race-baiting? Let’s hope this means we won’t see a lot more if it.

* BIG GAINS IN VIRGINIA HOUSE OF DELEGATES: The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that the Democratic rout obliterated a 32-seat GOP advantage in the Virginia House of Delegates, with history made in the process:

Northern Virginia journalist Danica Roem made history by becoming the first openly transgender candidate elected to a state legislature in the nation, while her party appeared to make a epochal gain in power in a legislative chamber that has been under an iron Republican grip. Democrats … knocked off at least 13 Republican incumbents on Tuesday to draw even in power in the House, pending recounts that could still swing in either direction.

Look for more analysis in coming days on this point, but these types of gains bode very well for Democrats’ chances of taking back the House in 2018.

* A WAVE ELECTION COMING? Nate Cohn crunches the results and says all the conditions of a wave election are in place for next year:

All of the conditions for a 2018 wave are in place. The president’s approval rating is stuck in the mid-to-high 30s. The Democrats hold nearly a double-digit lead on the generic congressional ballot. The president’s party nearly always struggles in midterm elections. These conditions have been in place all year. It just hasn’t yielded Democratic victories until now because the high-profile races have been fought in reliably Republican areas.

But: While Northam overperformed with college-educated whites, he still struggled with white working-class areas, so House districts with lots of those voters could still be an obstacle for winning it back.

* AND DON’T FORGET BANNON’S BOASTING: The Post reminds us that Trumpist true believers such as Stephen K. Bannon told us that running on Trumpism would be a big winner. As Bannon put it before the election:

“Where there are establishment candidates, the lesson of Gillespie is Trumpism without Trump. We now have forced the establishment to embrace our platform.”

Maybe the “establishment” should rethink this. GOP strategist Rick Wilson suggests another way: “Burn Donald Trump to the ground if you ever want to win another vote from a woman, a black person or a Latino.”