Success has a thousand fathers, but failure in politics requires endless paternity tests. Who has the most responsibility for the GOP’s rout in Virginia last night, in which Democrats swept all three statewide offices and may have taken control of its House of Delegates? And what does it mean for 2018? The Washington Post notes the damage, as well as the limitations of applying it to the midterms:
But while Democrats swept races for New Jersey governor, New York City mayor and all three statewide posts in Virginia, Tuesday’s vote offered no definitive guidance about whether the torrent of anti-Trump votes can translate into an effective strategy for Democrats in swing or red states in next year’s congressional elections.
No Republican has won a statewide election in Virginia since 2009, and what was long considered a swing state is now represented by two Democratic senators, has elected Democratic governors in four of the past five cycles, and is governed by a legislature that took a big step back from Republican dominance toward relative balance Tuesday.
Some Democrats cheered the Virginia results as a sign of things to come, noting that 23 House Republicans hold seats in districts Democrat Hillary Clinton won last year. The lesson is: Be afraid, be very afraid,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who has represented his Fairfax County district since 2009. “Something is coming. There will be a day of reckoning.”
But others warned that the Virginia results may say little about Democratic appeal beyond the mostly coastal states where Clinton did well. “Everything’s coming down to geography,” said Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a longtime Democratic political consultant in Virginia whose base in the state’s rural south went heavily for Gillespie.
No one’s sure yet which party will control the legislature. Democrats went into the night needing to flip 17 seats from the GOP’s 66-34 advantage to seize the majority, and they may still accomplish it:
Democrats nearly wiped out Republicans’ overwhelming majority on Election Day in the Virginia House of Delegates, with a handful of races that will decide control of the body remaining too close to call.
Democrats picked up at least 13 of the 17 seats on Tuesday they would need to retake the chamber for the first time in two decades. …
Seven seats were too close to call early Wednesday. Many of those could be subject to recounts if candidates choose to request them.
In one race, only 12 votes separated Republican Del. David Yancey and Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds.
Everyone expected a rout in New Jersey, and Democrats dominated as expected. Virginia was supposed to be different. No one thought the gubernatorial race would be easy, but few expected the large Republican legislative majority to be at risk. So what happened? Let the finger-pointing begin!
Actually, it began last night. Trump took time out from his Asia trip to take aim at Ed Gillespie for keeping the president at arm’s length during the campaign:
Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for. Don’t forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2017
The view from inside the state was somewhat different. Congressman Scott Taylor (R-VA) put the blame on Trump for his “divisive rhetoric,” and warned that this may not be the end of the blowback:
Representative Scott Taylor, a Republican from Virginia Beach, said he considered the Democratic sweep in Virginia a repudiation of the White House. He faulted Mr. Trump’s “divisive rhetoric” for propelling the party to defeat, and said he believed traditionally Republican-leaning voters contributed to Mr. Northam’s margin of victory.
“I do believe that this is a referendum on this administration,” Mr. Taylor said of the elections. “Democrats turned out tonight, but I’m pretty sure there were some Republicans who spoke loudly and clearly tonight as well.”
Channeling the shock of Republicans across the state, Mr. Taylor voiced disbelief at the party’s rout down ballot. “I know folks that lost tonight who were going against candidates I’d never even heard of,” he said.
If Gillespie was the only electoral casualty last night, Trump might have a point. The wall-to-wall rout suggests that Taylor’s take is more accurate. The Republican problem last night was not Gillespie’s attempt to find a middle ground between Trump and his usual approach to elections and policy. The entire Republican brand soured in Virginia, and that speaks to a much broader issue.
That still might not be a referendum on Trump, or at least not on Trump entirely. Trump has, after all, done some significant work from the executive branch. Republicans in Congress have done nearly nothing on their agenda and have squandered their credibility in just a few short months. They reneged on their pledge to repeal ObamaCare, having overpromised what was possible for the last five years, and now they’re about to do the same thing on tax reform.
Even worse is the manner in which they’ve failed. It has become clear that the GOP did nearly nothing to prepare for governance. They approached both of those major agenda items in a last-minute, slap-dash, ad hoc manner rather than have agreements in place on the structure of major legislation. The House and Senate don’t talk to each other despite being in the same party’s control. Trump may have alienated some voters with his divisive rhetoric, but it’s the incompetence in Congress that matters more to voters who expected to be able to finally achieve long-held policy goals.
If this turns out to be a blue state getting bluer, none of this may matter when it comes to 2018. Trump lost Virginia by over five points last year, which is why a full-on embrace didn’t seem like a good strategy in 2017, and Virginia may be just another blue state where Republicans have ceased to matter. But if so, that’s an abrupt change from holding a 66-34 advantage in the legislature until last night. It’s more likely that the futility of the Republican majorities in Congress is combining with the divisiveness of the White House to create a toxic political stew. Republicans had better start getting things accomplished, or they’ll choke on it a year from now.
Update: Well, I didn’t see this coming. Rick Santorum, who served as one of Trump’s campaign advisors, tells Trump on CNN that he’d better look to himself first for the Virginia debacle:
“I think the bottom line is Donald Trump is not delivering on what he said he was going to deliver on, and that’s the problem,” Santorum said on CNN. “And he needs to deliver, and if there’s a message for Republicans they better get that message and they better start passing stuff and looking like they can govern.” …
Santorum, however, rejected the notion that Gillespie was to blame. Democrats in the commonwealth were motivated to turn out, he said.
“It’s not Ed’s fault,” Santorum said. “You’re blaming it on Ed, and I just don’t think it’s Ed’s fault.”
Gillespie was the candidate, so some of this is his fault too, but Santorum hits the nail almost squarely on the head. The problem of delivery is broader than Trump, but he needs to quit exacerbating intraparty splits if he wants Congress to start delivering. Some of that divisive rhetoric has been aimed at his own party.