Tuesday, November 7 started out with Democrats finding out that their approval numbers are at a 25 year low according to a CNN poll. Democrats in Washington and across the nation went into Election Night 2017 with their breath held as polls in the marquee race for the Virginia governorship began to tighten between Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie. The final Real Clear Politics average had Northam up by 3. Polls were also open in New Jersey, Maine, Utah, Washington State, New York, Pennsylvania and various local races.
With a President of the opposition party consistently drawing approval ratings below 40%, the political climate of last week’s elections strongly favored Democrats. Special elections earlier in 2017 largely foreshadowed Democratic gains in elections to come. Yet, at the ballot box, Democrats have failed to win a race that garnered national attention with losses in congressional special elections in Montana, Kansas, South Carolina and most notably in the Georgia 6th. Until Tuesday.
Ralph Northam won his race for the Commonwealth’s governor’s mansion by a resounding 9 points with Democrats down the ballot also making substantial gains. Justin Fairfax became the second African American ever elected to statewide office in Virginia, winning his race for Lieutenant Governor by 5 points. And in a result stunning both Republicans and Democrats, the GOP’s House of Delegates majority could be at stake. Going into the election, Democrats only held 34 of the 100 seats. As of the writing of this article, Democrats have currently secured victories in 49 seats, Republicans in 48 seats, and 3 races are within 120 votes and provisional ballots are being secured (Republicans currently hold leads of 84, 115 and 13 votes in those three races).
While such gains in what was considered a battleground state may be the source of much jubilation for Democrats, Professor Marc Hetherington, expert on political parties and electoral polarization, provides some context to the party’s victories. “Virginia is a fairly blue state,” he notes. Having voted for Clinton in 2016, Obama both times, and having two Democratic Senators, Virginia does indeed seem to be going from purple to blue. Hetherington notes that Democrats making an unexpected run at the House of Delegate majorities is more impressive but “bizarre that the GOP had such a large advantage” in the first place, even after considering district gerrymandering.
Virginia mirroring its Presidential party preference in statewide races is not a surprise. “What we see happening across the country is that states are following Presidential voting habits” to a degree not seen in at least a century, notes Hetherington. In 2016, for the first time ever, the winner of the state’s Presidential vote could predict with 100% accuracy who won the race for Senate in the state.
Yet, Hetherington acknowledges that Democrats should indeed be proud of is “change in turnout.” Virginia “has not seen a turnout this high in 20 years” for an off-year election, notes Hetherington. “That says to me that this is Trump motivated.” To Gillespie’s chagrin, Democrats took to the ballot box to express their disapproval of the President.
In Hetherington’s view, there is little to suggest that Trump will become less polarizing of a candidate by this time in 2018. Though the media labels many events as “ground breaking,” the President’s approval numbers since April, taking an aggregate of polls, has consistently been between 37-42%. Odds makers currently have the Democrats at slightly better than a 50-50 chance to retake the House.
Perhaps more important than the immediate electoral consequences of Tuesday’s elections is the impact such results will have on races in the future. Following Gillespie’s loss, many pundits were contemplating whether or not the Republican defeats would convince establishment GOPers to be more critical of the current administration in their campaigns. Trump, over Twitter, wrote that the candidate never embraced Trumpism and that could be considered a reason for his loss. In a similar manner, Steve Bannon said that a more full embrace would have helped Gillespie saying, “You can’t fake the Trump agenda.” Furthermore, Speaker Ryan, when asked whether Republicans would stick with Trump for the midterms, responded “We already made that choice. We’re with Trump.” On Twitter, Democrats were fairly excited to see those comments.
Democratic gains were not limited to Virginia. Phil Murphy, as predicted, retook control of New Jersey’s governorship as a historically unpopular Chris Christie leaves office. Dems picked up a state senate seat in Washington giving Democrats both state chambers and the governorships along the entire West coast. Maine overwhelming voted to expand Medicaid against the wishes of Governor Paul LePage (who is contemplating blocking the reform). Democrats won hotly contested mayoral races in Manchester, NH, St. Petersburg, FL, and Atlantic City, NJ.
Hetherington comments that this strong showing by Democratic candidates means two important things for 2018. Firstly, with a favorable national environment, that is an unpopular Republican President and polling that consistently shows Democrats ahead by large margins in the generic ballot, Democrats can expect good, experienced candidates to join the fray. Additionally, donors will be much willing to give large sums to help finance races around the country.
Bits of irony abounded throughout election night. The first openly transgender member of the Virginia House of Delegates defeated the author of a “bathroom” bill that would have required transgender individuals use the bathroom of the gender assigned to them at birth. A former news anchor whose girlfriend was shot on live on TV won a race calling for gun control against an NRA-backed candidate. The new district attorney in Philadelphia made a name for himself by suing police officers over civil rights infractions. A local official in New Jersey lost a race to a woman who was motivated to run against him because of a meme he shared on Facebook.
Only time will tell whether or not the Democratic gains in 2017 were a foreshadowing of continued success in the 2018 elections, or merely a brief reprieve from the consistent electoral losses since 2013. Election night 2018 is Tuesday, November 6th.
[Image credit: http://wvut.org/election-day-2/]