Jubilant Democrats struck a defiant tone after sweeping victories across the country on Tuesday night, led by Democrat Ralph Northam’s surprise pummeling of Republican Ed Gillespie in Virginia’s gubernatorial race.
Surveying their first electoral sweep in half a decade after a soul-crushing 2016 campaign and a desultory start to the Donald Trump era, Democratic leaders reset their expectations for the 2018 midterms. They’re now expecting a fundraising and candidate recruitment surge, powered by grass-roots fury at the Trump administration.
While most Democrats stopped short of predicting the party will take the House next year, they noted in Gillespie the failure of a candidate who tried balancing between Trump-style populism and establishment Republicanism.
“We were all under a lot of pressure saying we need to win this thing, we need a boost. But we gave a rocket boost tonight,” said outgoing Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, celebrating at Northam’s election night party. The result in the race to replace him, he said, “is a rejection of Trump, of the hatred and bigoted fear that they always bring into these campaigns.”
“I certainly didn’t see this ass-kicking coming; this is pretty stunning,” added Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “Republicans have two problems: their president and their agenda. And I don’t think either of those liabilities are disappearing anytime soon.”
The shifted landscape remains forbidding for Democrats. They must flip 24 Republican-held seats to win the House, and are forced to defend 10 incumbent senators running for reelection in states that Trump won in 2016. They must also handle a range of painful internal tactical and policy divisions threatening to rupture their unity at any moment.
Plus, Tuesday’s wide victories came in one solidly Democratic state and another that’s been leaning that way, making it potentially perilous to read too much into their results.
But paired with Phil Murphy’s long-expected victory in New Jersey’s gubernatorial election, upsets in Virginia’s House of Delegates races, and wins in mayoral elections from New Hampshire to Florida, the evening presented Democrats with a night to celebrate for the first time since Trump’s shocking victory in November 2016. They have repeatedly fallen short in special elections in conservative areas so far this year, but Tuesday’s results wiped that slate nearly clean in the eyes of stunned party operatives and lawmakers.
After Northam’s win, New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, chairman of House Democrats’ campaign wing, immediately started calling potential Democratic House candidates who were on the fence about whether to run.
“Doesn’t matter if you’re watching CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC: There’s good news for Democrats, [and] this is a nightmare scenario for Republican incumbents, especially in Virginia,” Luján said, pointing to Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock as an example of an incumbent Republican whose path to victory suddenly looks much tougher.
“The House is absolutely in play; everything is absolutely moving in our direction,” Luján said.
Even before Tuesday, optimism was building among Democrats working on 2018 campaigns. As more and more Republican House members announce their retirements rather than run again in an inhospitable landscape, the victories could tilt the midterm playing field further toward Democrats by giving them a fundraising and recruitment jolt.
And at a time when Democrats have once again become enmeshed in their own civil wars over ideology, tactics and the 2016 loss, the victories provided them with hope that Republican fissures would dominate the political conversation again. Tweeting from South Korea after the Virginia race was called, Trump distanced himself from Gillespie, accusing the former Republican National Committee chairman of not “embrac[ing] me or what I stand for.”
Tuesday’s losses could initiate a broader debate in the GOP over a vexing question: the extent to which the party should embrace Trump in 2018.
Gillespie engaged in a tortured balancing act, refusing to campaign with the president but embracing some of the culture-war issues that Trump has championed.
On Tuesday evening, several people close to the White House argued that Gillespie should have gone further to embrace the president — and that by not appearing with him he dampened turnout from conservatives and Trump supporters whose votes he needed.
“It should serve as a wake-up call for any Republicans who are pretending there’s not a political problem going into next year. Republicans in Virginia and New Jersey worked hard and knew the challenges, but voters were sending a message,” said Republican operative Mike Duhaime, outgoing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s former top strategist.
Democratic operatives were also quick to note on Tuesday evening that exit polls showed Virginians caring deeply about health care over other issues, handing ammunition to those who argue that the party should focus on bread-and-butter economic and household topics rather than zeroing in on Trump himself.
If such a focus works in a shifting battleground like Virginia — which has now voted for two straight Democratic governors and senators, and three straight Democratic presidential candidates — it is likely to work in other battlegrounds, they said.
“Americans — not just Democrats — are getting fed up with a mean-spirited, divisive, denigrating kind of politics — one that isn’t focused on a prosperity agenda but is actually, even more so, doubling down on the politics of the elite, the wealthiest in our country,” said Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. “This has been a very dark year. But the north star is rising.”
Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.
Powered by WPeMatico