Pundits are famous for going overboard in interpreting a couple of local elections and boldly predicting the future.
But that’s not quite the case with the Democratic victory in Virginia. It really was, to a striking degree, about President Trump.
That’s certainly the message of the mainstream media, many of whose members seem to be in a very good mood this week.
Washington Post headline: “Democratic Wins are Stinging Repudiation of Trump One Year After His Election.”
New York Times lead: “Voters delivered their first forceful rebuke of President Trump and his party on Tuesday night.”
Even Drudge goes with “DEMS BORN AGAIN.”
But I have to take a pause and say that Democrat Ralph Northam trouncing Republican Ed Gillespie for governor was not entirely about Trump. (The New Jersey governor’s race was never competitive, since the Republican was Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor and his poll ratings have been in the toilet.)
Virginia, and this is a generational shift, has basically become a blue state. Four of the last five governors, including outgoing incumbent Terry McAuliffe, have been Democrats. Both of the state’s senators are Democrats. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton carried Virginia in the last three elections.
Given the clout of Northern Virginia’s increasingly liberal Washington suburbs, it’s possible that no Republican could have won the governor’s mansion this year.
And Gillespie was caught in a no-man’s land. He is a savvy establishment Republican who has been RNC chairman and President Bush’s counselor, as well as a corporate lobbyist.
But he distanced himself from Trump, never inviting him to campaign or raise money, while hitting certain Trumpian themes—illegal immigration and Confederate statues—designed to appeal to his voters.
In exit polls, half the state’s voters said Trump was a reason for their vote, and 34 percent said they were casting their ballots to oppose Trump, 17 percent to support him.
Northam, an extremely low-key lieutenant governor, may have benefitted from the fact that he is a relative moderate who twice voted for George W. Bush. He performed better than Clinton in a couple of D.C.’s exurban counties.
Interestingly, few commentators were willing to predict a Northam victory, especially with tightening polls in the final two weeks; he won by almost 9 points. In hindsight, of course, everyone’s an expert.
But for all the chatter about how the Democrats are now poised to take over the House, Times analyst Nate Cohn offered these cautionary words:
“It is not obvious that Tuesday’s performance represents a significant improvement over the Democrats’ showings earlier in the year. In 2018, they won’t always get the luxury of competing in such favorable districts. To take the House next November, they might have to do even better than they did on Tuesday.”
America, in short, is not Virginia or New Jersey. The Democrats would need to pick up 24 seats, some of them in red states. The Dems got a much-needed morale boost, but the midterms are still a year away and the Trump presidency could look very different by then.