Five takeaways from the Virginia governor’s race


Democrat Ralph Northam’s Tuesday routing of Republican Ed Gillespie to become the next governor of Virginia has significant national implications.

Here are five takeaways from Democrats’ big night.

Reinvigorated Democrats score their first big Trump-era victory

Democrats are back from the dead.

Downtrodden liberals finally had a night to celebrate after a year of abysmal electoral returns that started with President Trump’s shocking White House upset and dragged on through several high-profile special-election losses in 2017.

A Northam loss on Tuesday would have sent the party into a tailspin.

Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, was expected to win — the state has gone blue in the last three presidential elections. Hillary Clinton carried Virginia by 5 points in 2016, and Democrats have grown accustomed to winning statewide races there.

But the polls tightened significantly in the last days of the race, making Democrats nervous in the final push. 

The fear of yet another crushing disappointment may have helped drive Democrats to the polls. They overcame the rain and the cold — conditions that typically depress turnout, which often favors Republicans.

It was a strong race from start to finish for Northam.

He soundly defeated a more liberal challenger in the primary, and Democrats were brightened by the fact that the race didn’t devolve into a proxy war between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Northam cruised to victory in the general election by running closely to term-limited Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), whose presidential prospects will get a boost in the wake of Tuesday’s outcome. 

The victory is also a big one for Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez. 

Perez was only elected chairman in February, but there has already been grumbling that the DNC’s rebuilding efforts were happening too slowly.

Perez barnstormed the state over the last four days, stumping for candidates up and down the ticket. He told The Hill in an interview that winning elections again would act as a salve for the party’s wounds from the divisive 2016 presidential primary.

Democrats got that and more on Tuesday night.

Trump-style campaigns won’t work everywhere

On paper, Gillespie looks like a far cry from a Trump-style candidate. As the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a onetime adviser to former President George W. Bush, Gillespie’s resume is full of establishment credentials.

But when polling showed Gillespie was in dire straights, he dove headlong into the culture wars that have been the hallmark of Trump’s administration.

Gillespie accused Northam of working to make it easier for sex offenders to vote and buy guns. He accused Northam of promoting the growth of a violent Salvadoran gang known as MS-13 and accused him of supporting sanctuary cities.

It appeared to be working. The polls tightened and Northam fumbled the sanctuary cities issue, which provoked progressive groups to cut him loose.

But when Election Day rolled around, the strategy backfired.  

Gillespie was routed in Northern Virginia, where a Republican with establishment credentials should fare far better.

Gillespie dipped into the Trump playbook and failed. That and the president’s historically low approval rating are sure to be on the minds of Republicans running for office in 2018. 

The House is in play for Democrats

The Virginia governor’s race bodes well for Democrats in their effort to pick up 24 seats and take back the House of Representatives.

In addition to winning the three statewide races on the ballot in Virginia, Democrats crushed down-ballot Republicans, picking up more than a dozen seats and cutting deep into the GOP’s 2-to-1 advantage in the Statehouse.

That’s a frightening prospect for Republicans seeking reelection to the House, some of whom already see the writing on the wall.

Prior to Election Day, 27 Republicans had announced they would not seek reelection to the House. GOP Reps. Frank LoBiondo (N.J.) and Ted Poe (Texas) added to that total on Tuesday, when they announced their retirements from Congress.

Republicans argued that Tuesday’s races don’t have broader implications — Virginia is a blue state where Democrats were expected to win.

But Democrats believe history is on their side. They’ve compared the 2018 political landscape to 2006, when they capitalized on the unpopularity of former Bush and the Republican Congress to take back the House.

Virginia loss could fuel more Republican primaries

The finger-pointing among Republicans started immediately.

Republican Rep. Scott Taylor (Va.) told The Hill the GOP’s losses on Tuesday were a “referendum” on the Trump administration.

The president disagreed.

Pro-Trump Republicans joined the president in venting their anger at the establishment for Gillespie’s failure.

Tonight proves you can’t put lipstick on an establishment pig,” said Andy Surabian, an adviser to Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon.

After Gillespie’s defeat, Breitbart ran a string of unsparingly critical headlines about him.

“Republican Swamp Thing Gillespie Rejected,” said one Breitbart headline.

The slams came after Bannon cautiously endorsed Gillespie over the weekend, saying he could be an example of “Trump-ism without Trump.”

But Bannon is otherwise on the front lines of the GOP civil war, recruiting challengers to almost every Republican up for reelection in the Senate

The establishment candidate’s failure on Tuesday is sure to exacerbate that divide.

The enthusiasm gap is real

Democrats have talked all year about the groundswell of liberal grassroots energy that will propel them to victory in 2018.

Until Tuesday, that had only translated into moral victories. 

The Democratic candidates ran more competitively than they historically have but still could not pull off the upsets in special elections on Republican turf. 

Still, there were signs of energy. Democrats lost Georgia’s 6th District by more than 20 points in 2016 but closed the gap to fewer than 4 in the 2017 special election there.

On Tuesday, they capitalized.

Northam won by nearly 9 points after the polls showed he was only ahead by 3.3 in the RealClearPolitics average.

And exit polls show Republicans have a major problem with college-educated white voters, who have been a GOP stronghold. 

Exit polls showed Northam winning 51 to 48 among that group after Trump won them 49 to 45 in 2016.

Tags Bernie Sanders Frank LoBiondo Hillary Clinton Ted Poe Tom Perez
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