Trump, Charlottesville, and what it means for 2018
Yesterday we witnessed a historic sweep by Virginia Democrats, and the electoral implosion of the Republican Party of Virginia. There are many factors that contributed to this outcome, some of which were well beyond the control of any the candidates on the ballot. However, if Republicans are ever to regain their footing in this increasingly blue state, there are a couple of hard truths that need to be reckoned with.
First, it really was all about Trump.
In 2009, the inauguration of the Obama era, with the president’s promise to “fundamentally transform America,” gave rise to the tea party revolution. Bob McDonnell capitalized on the negative reaction to President Obama and won the statewide election in November 2009 by a staggering 17 points. This was the first big electoral reaction to Obama, and where the tea party first tasted success.
Fast forward eight years and what has changed? The occupant of the White House. For well over 40 years, the party of the newly-elected President has lost the Virginia Governorship the following year. So, Virginians reacting negatively to the president’s party is nothing new; in Virginia perhaps more than almost anywhere else, statewide elections are nationalized, and have reflected the mood of the electorate toward Washington more than toward Richmond. The single exception to the rule came when Ken Cuccinelli lost to Terry McAuliffe in 2013 by 2.5 points, where the “Virginia Curse” was broken by the double whammy of a government shutdown for which national Republicans took the blame, and the corruption investigation of the sitting Republican Governor.
Last night was the mirror image of 2009, but in 2009 the GOP already had control of the House of Delegates, so there wasn’t as much room for them to grow as there was for Democrats yesterday. The same energizing of the GOP base we saw in reaction to Obama was evident in the Democrat base mobilizing against Trump.
Don’t tell me this was weakness on Ed Gillespie’s part. He got more votes than McAuliffe won with last time, meaning he kept the GOP base and then added to it. (Mick Staton nails this analysis here). This was about the Democrats growing the universe of voters, and turning them out in unprecedented numbers. This was, of course, aided by the fact the Congressional Republicans seem incapable of keeping any promises, which hampers the party’s overall ability to energize marginal voters, too.
A more Trumpian approach by Ed (or the nomination of Trump’s would-be little sidekick) might have had the effect of riling up a certain part of the GOP base a little more, but it’s not like they stayed home yesterday in any case. Rather, such an approach would probably have helped even more with Democrat turnout.
So let’s face it: yes, this was about Trump, and that means to a large degree it was a matter beyond the control of the Republicans on the ballot yesterday.
Second, process matters.
The other thing this election was about was the events of Charlottesville on August 12 (the “Unite the Right” debacle). This gave Democrats a perfect and near-bulletproof way to attack and undermine Republicans. It was Republicans, after all, who gave legitimacy to the crowd who organized that effort.
Most observers agree that Corey Stewart wounded Ed Gillespie in the primary, and that Stewart’s near win really took the wind out of Gillespie’s sails. The primary campaign also provided a public forum through which Stewart could demagogue the heck out of “Confederate heritage” issues to radicalize and fire up a portion of the GOP base, which in turn lent the legitimacy of a statewide major party candidate to an effort by a bunch of weirdos that likely would never have otherwise emerged from their mothers’ basements.
That band of twisted misfits have done severe and lasting damage to our party, and we felt its first impact last night.
This wouldn’t have happened had we nominated our candidates by a convention, where the candidates wouldn’t have been focused on public rabble rousing and controversy-hounding, and where the issues would have been “in the family.” Further, our nominees would have emerged without being hobbled and bankrupted by a very public and ugly fight.
Finally, next steps.
1. Last night probably means Barbara Comstock runs for U.S. Senate next year. She’ll be the establishment’s answer to Corey Stewart. She realizes she’s toast in the now-blue 10th District, and running for Senate provides her a means to step away from that with dignity and prestige. The same bought-and-paid-for hacks we saw this year will soon start lining up behind Babs.
If those are truly our only choices, well, that’d be…less than satisfying, shall we say.
2. With the Senate margin so thin (and the House margin if it holds), Governor-elect Northam will be in a buying mood. The question now is, who is selling? That is, in order to flip the majority in one or both Houses, Northam will be dangling the prospect of high-paying and high-ranking government jobs in front of the noses of vulnerable Republican members of the General Assembly. If any of them take such an offer, a special election would be held for their replacement, and you can bet Gov. Northam will pick a district he thinks Democrats can win.
So if you know any such General Assembly members, in particular Sen. Frank Wagner, please call and plead with them not to take any such offers. We need all the members of our team now, and a defection of even one Senator at this point will have disastrous consequences for the ability of our party to ever recover a meaningful role in Virginia governance going forward (i.e. without a Senate backstop, the Dems will gerrymander us out of existence). If they ever really wanted to serve, and to do good, now is the time for these folks to do so, by standing firm, shoulder to shoulder with their comrades.