For the first time in an entire year, millions of Democrats woke up hopeful Wednesday. Rather than the continuing despair over the inescapable fact of “President Donald Trump,” Democrats now have solid reason for political optimism. All of this cheerfulness stems from the election results of last night, where Democrats didn’t just win and they didn’t just win big, they absolutely swept the board. Which has many now predicting the swell of last night is the leading edge of a Democratic wave election, in next year’s congressional midterms.
This optimism certainly isn’t unfounded or unreasonable. But I have to introduce at least a word of caution, noting that the 2018 midterms are a full year away, and anything can happen between now and then. A year is a lifetime in politics, as evidenced by the fact that it has not even been a full year since Donald Trump took office (it is, however, the first anniversary of his electoral win). So far, most of the turmoil we’ve experienced since then has been self-inflicted by Trump and his administration. Not much of the chaos has resulted from external factors (with the big exception being the hurricanes). But external factors (an economic downturn, a terror attack, a foreign policy crisis, etc.), by definition are beyond the control of the White House. And we’ve got a full year to go, meaning (once again) that anything could happen to change the political landscape.
Having said that, though, last night was pretty a pretty darn impressive showing by Democratic voters. Democratic candidates beat expectations pretty much across the board. New Jersey soundly rejected Chris Christie’s sidekick and elected a Democrat to the governor’s office by a double-digit margin, returning the state to full Democratic control. Washington state flipped control of their state senate to the Democrats, again resulting in a political trifecta (Democratic control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the statehouse). Bill de Blasio became the first Democratic mayor of New York City to win re-election since the 1980s, in an impressive landslide. Progressive candidates chalked up victories in many local races, and the diversity of the Democrats elected last night was spectacularly impressive, which included a transgender candidate beating a man who described himself as the “chief homophobe” of Virginia.
If last night was the beginning of a Democratic wave, then Virginia was definitely the crest of that wave. It is time (astonishingly, for someone who grew up in the general region) for everyone to now consider Virginia a reliably blue state ― not red (as it was before the advent of Barack Obama), or even purple. As goes Virginia (Democrats sincerely hope), so will soon go North Carolina and perhaps even Georgia, as demographic trends continue to change the South.
The Virginia 2017 election returns contained nothing but good news for the Democratic Party. At the top of the ticket, Ralph Northam beat all expectations in his nine-point margin of victory over a Republican who had fully embraced a Trump-style campaign. The margin is crucial to understand how the narrative is being shaped today. Republicans were hoping that, if they didn’t outright win, they could at least claim some sort of booby-prize victory by saying: “Ed Gillespie got closer than he should have, in such a blue state.” Democrats should be familiar with this, because they’ve been claiming similar moral victories for the past year (more about that in a moment). But the GOP wasn’t even left with this consolation prize.
Northam’s nine-point margin was far bigger than the two numbers Republicans were all set to measure it by. The first of these was the margin of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 victory in Virginia, which was five points. The second was the polling done in the run-up to the election, which showed Northam with perhaps a three-point lead (and falling). Northam beat both by a wide margin. Republicans who were all set to argue that the polls had been “skewed” towards Democrats once again are now stymied, since if anything the polls were skewed Republican. Few polls predicted the size of Northam’s victory, and conventional political wisdom would have given at least even chances for a Gillespie upset, since all the late movement in the polling was in Gillespie’s favor (the trendline for the final week of polling was truly scary for Democrats to contemplate). Usually, when a race breaks late, the win goes to whoever it breaks towards ― but not this time.
More good news for Democrats came from the size of the turnout. Not only was this an off-off-year election, but the weather turned sour on Election Day. Both of these traditionally dampen turnout, especially on the Democratic side. Surprisingly, Democrats were resolute and turned out in astonishing numbers, especially in the northern Virginia suburbs. This could bode well for the 2018 midterms, as it was the first real test of whether the resistance movement against Trump would endure long enough that Democrats would actually vote in the off years. Yesterday, they did ― and they did so in droves.
The down-ballot races were the most astonishingly good news of the night for Democrats, however, even though the mainstream media hasn’t really highlighted it yet. The entire 100-seat Virginia House of Delegates was up for election last night, and before the votes were counted the Republicans had a whopping 2-to-1 edge, holding 66 seats to the Democrats’ 34. This has now shifted dramatically, although not all races have been definitively decided yet (some are still counting provisional ballots, and there will likely be recounts held in the closest races). Democrats picked up at least 14 seats last night, with four races still too close to call. Of these four outstanding races, the Democrat leads in one and the Republican candidate leads in three. If those results are confirmed, Republicans will wind up with the thinnest of margins, going from a 66-34 majority to only a 51-49 lead. That is a monumental shift of power for a single election. And Democrats even still have a chance of wresting the majority away from Republicans, depending on how the outstanding races are ultimately decided. The entire chamber is up for re-election again in 2019, when all the state senate seats will also be on the ballot, meaning Democrats could flip Virginia entirely (even with all the Republican gerrymandering) in time to completely control the redistricting of the state following the 2020 Census. And, once again, this beat all expectations. Even Democratic optimists were only hoping to pick up maybe five or six seats before the returns started coming in. This is the biggest shift in power in Virginia’s state government in the past two decades, which is a very big deal indeed.
This is where the moral victories Democrats have been claiming come into play. Over the past year, we have had five special elections for seats in the House of Representatives, and one (ongoing) campaign for a Senate special election. Four of the House districts were pretty solid Republican districts, and one was Democratic (for a spot vacated by a move within California’s state government). None of these districts switched hands, despite tens of millions of dollars spent on what normally would have been pretty sleepy races. The Democrats held onto the California seat, and Republicans held onto the other four. But ― the consolation prize ― Democrats insisted that their candidates “overperformed” in the races for the GOP seats, winning more votes than they historically should have, which resulted in much tighter margins of victory for the Republicans. “We did better than we should have,” in other words. This is important because there are a lot of House districts currently held by Republicans which were won with margins of victory far below those of the districts in the special elections. This gives Democrats more targets to shoot for in 2018, in other words, because if they can overperform by, say, five points then that puts a lot more districts within possible reach.
The really good news for Democrats was not so much how many races they won last night, but how they won those races. In both New Jersey and Virginia, the Republican gubernatorial candidate attempted to run a Trumpian campaign. Immigrants were scapegoated, and dark warnings of rampant crime (should the Democrat be elected) were deployed. This did not work. Running Trumpian campaigns without Donald Trump actually on the ticket failed miserably. This further complicates life for Republican incumbents wondering what kind of re-election campaign they should wage next year. They can run towards Trump or away from him, but both paths now carry significant risks. This may even impact their current efforts to cut taxes on corporations at the expense of middle-class taxpayers.
Democrats improved their performance among almost every demographic group in Virginia, it should be noted. They did especially well in the higher-income suburbs, which include a lot of folks who will actually see their taxes go up if the GOP tax plan is enacted. And there are lots of similar suburban districts across the country. Many of them, in fact, are currently represented by Republicans in Congress. This is also where Democratic turnout outperformed all expectations in Virginia. These people are motivated to vote, and they’re motivated to vote Republicans out of office ― which should send a very chilling message to many GOP House members. Perhaps this is why so many have decided to retire rather than run again.
What surprised me the most about the breakdown of the Virginia vote was how potent an issue healthcare has now become for the Democrats. After getting beaten up for several election cycles over the Obamacare issue, Democrats should now forcefully be playing offense instead of cowering away from discussing healthcare. In Maine, a state with a governor every bit as crazy as Donald Trump, the people voted overwhelmingly to expand Medicaid. In Virginia, healthcare was the number one issue on voters’ minds, according to exit polls. And those that cited healthcare as their main motivating factor voted Democratic by a 3-to-1 margin. Northam supported Medicaid expansion but did not support the “Medicare For All” plan from Senator Bernie Sanders, showing that even tepid support of Obamacare or the goals of making healthcare better turned out to be a winning issue in a much bigger way than expected. And, as Maine showed, this isn’t limited to just one state. The voters have seen what healthcare ideas the Democrats support and they have now seen (with the whole “repeal and replace Obamacare” fiasco) what Republicans would replace it with ― and the verdict is in on which motivates voters more.
Democrats had a very good night last night, without doubt. Trumpism had a very bad night. The resistance is real. It has not faded away over time. Democrats did not stay home on Election Day, they instead turned out in full force. They beat Republicans on style and on the issues. At the very least, they came within a hair’s breadth of flipping the Virginia House of Delegates over to their control ― a feat nobody had predicted before last night. Transgender candidates and women of color and immigrants won races against old, white Republican men. Republican fearmongering fell way too short, and Democratic inclusiveness won.
Millions of Democrats have spent the past year waking up each morning in an incredibly depressed state, from those who immediately check to see what idiocy Trump tweeted in the wee hours to those who only hear of his embarrassments from late-night comedians. The past year has felt like an extended bad dream to many on the left, which was only exacerbated by losing those four House special elections ― each of which was billed to a varying degree as “a real turning point for Democrats,” only to disappoint in the end. That promised turning point finally came last night. And when morning dawned, Democrats are now ― with good reason ― starting to look forward with some real optimism for the first time since the crushing blow which happened exactly one year ago.
In other words, it’s a new day.
Chris Weigant blogs at ChrisWeigant.com.
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant