For a while now, I've had some friends ask me my thoughts on the 2018 elections. It's much too long to go into here, because this is about Tuesday's elections, but the very short version is that, in a mid-term election, get-out-the-vote and having the most enthusiastic voters anxious to go to the polls is what matters most. And right now, most Democrats are blistering furious, while most Republicans are embarrassed. Further, as low as Trump's approval is right now, I can only see it getting worse, not just because of the news and investigations, but because he has almost no one seriously good to help him, having surrounded himself with mostly second-raters at best. And finally, I look at 1976 as precedence, when the public took out its anger at an administration under impeachment investigation and elected Jimmy Carter with a landslide of Democrats all over the country. (For more detail on this latter, I wrote about at length here.)
That's the very short version.
And we saw it play out to a degree on Tuesday. To be clear, Virginia is not typical of all states. And while it's purple, it's been leaning more blue in the governor and senate races in recent years (though has been solidly Republican in local statehouse elections). And much will change before 2016 -- though, as I said, I think for the worse for the GOP. But looking at Virginia can't be taken in isolation, and it must be remembered that during the past months in several House races which Republicans won in deep Red states, they won by much smaller margins than in the 2016 election.
To anyone dancing a jig, I certainly understand, but importantly I don't think one should take Virginia as a template for 2018. However, it's a roadmap. And it's traveling a route that I think must terrify Republican candidates.
Not just Virginia, but in Maine with a Trump-like bombastic Republican governor, the public voted to increase Medicaid, which Trump and the GOP want to cut. New Jersey went as expected, but switching a state's governorship (as they did) is never a small matter, even when expected. In Washington state, Democrats took control of the statehouse, Democrats even picked up three seats in the Red Georgia legislature.
As for Virginia, though, the story isn't that Democrats kept the governorship, but the margin was by a huge nine points -- in a race that was supposedly closing and where it was thought the Republican candidate might even have a chance to win in an upset, especially with Donald Trump making a robocall recording that blanketed the state. But beyond that nine-point margin, Democrats won the Lt. Governor race and Attorney General election. And, they actually have a chance to take the statehouse -- called the House of Delegates -- which was something no one saw, since they had been down by, I believe, 66-34. In the last decade, the most seats that Virginia Democrats have picked up in any state election is...one. Over the last 42 years, the most seats they have picked up in any single year is just five. By this morning, though, they had already gained 14 -- with eight races razor-thin undecided. (If the results stay as they are, the results will be 50 seats each, but the Lt. Governor, who will be a Democrat, breaks a tie.) Democrats may not take over, it's that close, perhaps falling one or two seats shorts, needing 17, but they don't need to win the House of Delegates to make the larger point profoundly clear, because all those picked-up seats against history speaks loudly about the direction of a major turn-around. Moreover, with Trump having written his transgender ban for the military, it was significant that not only did a transgender candidate win but against the very representative (with 22 years in office) who had authored the Virginia bathroom ban bill.
One of the most important things about these results in Virginia is not Virginia itself, however, but how all the other Republicans in the U.S. House react. Same with the Senate, but House seats are less entrenched and so more at risk. Those House candidates in swing districts must be horrified. In today's GOP climate, they feel they have to campaign to the Trump far-right in order to head off a primary challenge, but now see how someone like Ed Gillespie who is not an off-the-edge right wing nut job got pummeled, losing by nine points when it was thought he might even win in an upset, largely by being a Republican tied to Trump. And they see too that even if Republicans manage to hold on to the Virginia statehouse by a hair by what that portends. After all, when a storm floods your house, you don’t say all is well just because it didn’t get washed away. Republican candidates in 2018 are watching the storm and taking note.
And because of this, another takeaway from the results of the election is that it may make make some Republican elected officials -- whether in swing House districts or tough Senate races -- more wary to follow Trump and his huge tax cut for the wealthy that raises the deficit by $1.5 trillion. "Some" certainly doesn't mean a lot, but then a lot aren't needed to put passage at risk, especially in the Senate where Republicans can only afford to lose three votes. Conversely, if those "some" don't materialize and Republicans do end up passing a huge tax giveaway to the rich, look for results like Tuesday to multiply.
Also worth noting -- among the Virginia statehouse winners was former journalist Chris Hurst whose girlfriend, you may recall the tragic story, had been killed on live TV while reporting the news. That prompted him to run for office, and he did so on an anti-gun platform against a three-time incumbent candidate with an A-rating from the gun manufacturer-owned NRA. Some of his victory might be a very personal reaction by voters, but I suspect a lot may speak to what I wrote elsewhere the other day, how I sense that the public could be getting fed up by elected officials who only offer "prayer" as a response to mass gun-shootings.
As much as can be interpreted by Tuesday's result, however, it's critical to step back and not read more than is reasonable into the the voting. Virginia, as I said, is not typical of all states. But it’s typical of many. And what's exceedingly important to keep in mind -- as many Democratic voters moan about gerrymandering and how there are so many districts the party simply has no chance in -- is that Democrats don’t have to win “all” districts. They only have to pick up 24 House seats. Or three Senate seats. (To be clear, that's not “And three Senate seats.” Winning one or the other houses of Congress blocks Trump.) And there are a lot of purple swing districts currently held by Republicans. And even Red district safe seats that aren't lock-box safe , with perhaps 5-6 point margins are at risk.
By the way, as I said, Democrats only have to pick up 24 seats in the House. Just know that there are 23 districts each represented by a Republican that aren't merely swing toss-ups, but in the last presidential election voted for Hillary Clinton .
There's also something else worth mentioning from yesterday that appears very minor at first glance and has avoided most punditry analysis, but which I think, small though it is, has some real-world long-range impact. And that's how Trump instantly disowned the Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie in a tweet after the loss. Faster, as someone noted, than he disowned white supremacists and neo-Nazis. And what can't be said enough is how incredibly stupid that "tweet" is, since it shows all GOP candidates across the country that Trump does not even remotely have their backs and will throw them under the bus to protect himself, because he has no political philosophy to serve as a foundation in support and solidarity, but just the pure ego of self-preservation. I don't think most professional candidates miss something like that, and it risks breaking the sense of loyalty that Trump so deeply craves.
There is still a very long way to go until the 2018 mid-term elections. And Trump is still president. A great deal can change – and likely will. Tuesday is just Tuesday. But…I think most of the change will be for the worse for Trump and Republicans. Because I think everything points to the news getting much worse and Trump doesn't have anyone qualified to help right the ship.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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