A year ago I remember the feeling of being punched in the gut by Trump’s election. What the hell had happened? The country that voted for Donald Trump did not resemble the country I knew, but I didn’t spend much time hanging out in red states. One takeaway was that blue-collar people gave America their middle finger by voting for Trump. It was a way of saying, “Pay attention to us!” Trump rode that anger into the White House, despite losing the popular vote.
It’s been a year of shock, upset stomachs and queasiness for the rest of us. It so affected my wife that she flew to Aruba to avoid all the hoopla around Trump’s inauguration. It’s also been a year of resistance and spine stiffening as Democrats and progressives resisted the Trump and Republican agenda against incredible headwinds. Yesterday’s off-year election, small as it was in scope, provided the relief we needed a year ago. Many of us are suddenly feeling like there may be a way to regain our mental health again. At least my wife has no plans to fly to Aruba next January.
The bellwether was Virginia, which elected a governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general along with the entire House of Delegates. The results were stunning by any measure. Democrats swept all three spots with Democrat Northam swamping Republican Gillespie by over 8 points. In a legislature gerrymandered to ensure pretty much any Republican can win, a 66R-34D legislature currently stands at 48D-47R with five races too close to call. If the preliminary results stand, the Virginia House will split 50R-50D with Democratic Lieutenant Governor Elect Justin Fairfax (an African American) presumably casting the tie vote.
A couple of races though were emblematic of the change; but none more so than VA-13 near Manassas, which happens to be where my daughter lives. Danica Roem, Virginia’s first openly transgender candidate, trounced longtime delegate Bob Marshall 54.4% to 45.6%. To put it bluntly, Marshall was the biggest asshole in the Virginia House. His views were wacky in the extreme, including most recently a bill (which fortunately died in committee) that would have required women like Roem to use public bathrooms that aligned with the gender on their birth certificate. (Roem would have had to use the men’s room.) This race was emblematic of the change in the state. Democrats simply crushed Republicans. First time women candidates did exceptionally well.
Ironically, Democrats have mostly Trump to thank. Democrats swept most competitive offices that were on the ballot last night and many that were thought to be noncompetitive. I can’t think of a single prominent Democrat who believed Democrats might win back the Virginia House. This morning, Democrats are on the cusp of this achievement. This would be their biggest pickup in an election since 1899. Trump turned out to be a huge motivator for Democrats, causing them to turn out at a rate of 10% higher than Republicans. In short, Democrats showed up for a change. They did more than show up. They showed up in droves. This too is a rare event for Democratic voters, notoriously fickle as a party, inclined toward apathy and more comfortable at home watching Netflix than in the voting booth. Disgust with Trump and his agenda though brought them out.
Democrats did well practically everywhere. They took back the governorship and lieutenant governorship in New Jersey, doubtlessly propelled by Chris Christie’s miserable 14% approval rate. However New Jersey was largely returning to form. Virginia has been a swing state. With this election it’s quite clear that it will swing less and should move toward being a solid blue state.
Virginia could be an outlier but it’s probably not. With Trump’s approval hanging in the mid 30s, he is toxic. Trying to emulate his strategy, as Ed Gillespie tried to do, proved toxic to Gillespie and other Republicans. While it might have appealed to Trump’s base and helped Gillespie’s turnout, it inflamed the Democratic base more.
Republicans have a big problem and his name is Donald J. Trump. They can no longer assume that political gerrymandering will render sufficient numbers of safe seats so they can keep their majorities in Congress. If Democrats can make the Virginia model national, they will easily sweep the House in 2018 and might pickup the Senate as well.
In any event, Democrats period of long frustration and inertia is over. The tide has turned. Trump being Trump, he won’t learn anything from this election and will double down on a failed strategy. So there is no reason for Democrats not to turn out again en masse in November 2018.