In Virginia’s gubernatorial election Republican candidate Ed Gillespie got his butt beat by almost 9 percentage points by Democrat Ralph Northam. So it looks like the Republicans will have to come up with another strategy for the off year elections in 2018. While Gillespie did not embrace Trump and his cellar dwelling approval ratings, he did advocate for the positions which appeared to make Trump successful in last year’s Presidential election – immigration, foreign trade, tough on crime, etc. Essentially Gillespie waged a campaign of Trumpism without Trump. Had he been successful, you would have seen many of the Republicans running in 2018 adopt that same strategy as a template for their campaigns, especially in purple states. However, after Gillespie’s devastating loss it’s back to the drawing boards for Republican candidates in next year’s elections.
Normally state wide elections in Virginia are very close affairs; this election wasn’t. What should be troubling to Republicans is that the deciding factor in this off year election was turnout. Without a presidential election to add spice to ballot, off year elections like those of 2018 usually attract fewer voters so turnout is especially important for both parties. Yesterday in Virginia Democrats, both white collar liberals and the minorities, descended on their polling places in droves. The Republicans in Virginia’s rural counties didn’t show anywhere near the same enthusiasm. The result was a game changer for elections in the era of Trump. The Democratic base has been agitated and energized by the cretin in the Oval Office and in Virginia they took out their frustration in the ballot box.
There is also another important take away from the Virginia election that I want to point out. The much ballyhooed rift within the Democratic Party and its progressive allies was a non factor in the election though many believed the stage was set for a major confrontation. Ralph Northam is a center left politician and in the Democratic primary he defeated the much more progressive candidate, Tom Perriello, who was backed by both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Neither Sanders nor Warren chose to endorse Northam in the general election, but Tom Perriello did. Perriello also worked vigorously for his former rival’s election.
Northam doesn’t support either a single-payer national health-care system or free college education and he caused some controversy during the campaign when he came out against sanctuary cities. However, his more centralist positions probably made him more electable in his purple state. On the other hand, what is probably more important for future elections is that once the primary was over, all of the Democrats and progressive independents closed ranks behind the most progressive candidate in the general election and supported at him the polls.
And let’s not underestimate the Trump affect on the Virginia election. As we could have easily predicted, as soon as the election results were apparent, Trump took to twitter to claim that Gillespie lost because he didn’t embrace him (Trump) wholeheartedly. Oh really?! Recent polls indicate that heading into the election Trump’s approval ratings in Virginia were around 35%. What sane candidate for governor would embrace a president with record low approval ratings in his/her state?
So if Democratic voters are united and motivated to vote and Republican voters are not, what strategies can Republican candidates use in the 2018 elections in purple and blue states? While nearly 85% of those who will vote in the Republican primaries still support Trump, embracing Trump in the primaries does not bode well for a candidate’s chances in the general election except in very red states. One possible compromise approach is to support Trump’s policies without openly the aligning oneself with the man himself. Well, Gillespie tried that half in and half out approach and it resulted in a blowout win for his Democratic opponent. So purple states Republican candidates will find themselves trying to pick the lesser of two evils – they either distance themselves from Trump and probably lose in the Republican primaries or they can embrace him and lose the general elections.
On the other hand we would do well to remember that “all elections are local” and that the candidates themselves are often more important than party, positions or endorsements. While Democratic candidates appear to have some inherent advantages in the age of Trump, they also face formidable obstacles in the 2018 elections. The Democratic Party has to defend far more Senatorial seats then do the Republicans in 2018. In addition, Republican dominance in many state legislators over the last 10 years has resulted in gerrymandered districts designed to maintain Republican control over the House of Representatives.
So what does the Virginia gubernatorial victory mean for 2018? It means that Democratic Party is set to take full advantage of the normal trend for the party out of power to make gains in off year election. However, the degree to which Democrats will be successful in retaking the House and the Senate will depend to the ability of Democrats and progressive independent voters to remain energized and motivated and to refuse to allow internal power struggles to destroy their unity.