A year out from the midterms and the national environment has by nearly all the political pundits, including some on the right, have been described as favorable to the Democrats, largely due to historical factors that decide the winners of midterm elections, such as the current president's approval rating. Midterm election wins normally happen for the out of power party, as they are typically more energized and independents see them as a check on the president’s legislative power. For the first time on November 7th, we saw a glimpse at what might be the beginnings of a blue wave in the midterms next year through election results across the country. In Virginia, Ralph Northam shrugged off the narrative that he was blowing the race in the final week of it, in large part due to a controversial ad from Latino Victory Fund, and other polls that showed movement toward Republican Ed Gillespie, to win the governors race in that state by 9 points over his rival.
The Virginia elections also gave the biggest surprise of the night, with Democrats taking 15 seats in the state’s House of Delegates, shattering expectations that at the most optimistic outlook was flipping 10 seats, and Democrats were so certain they weren’t going to come close to taking it that Northam was quoted before the election as saying that he couldn’t wait to work with the Republican speaker. In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy beat lieutenant GOP governor Kim Guadagno by double digits, as New Jersey now is one of a very small number of democratic trifecta states, 8, where they control the state house, senate, and governor’s mansion. Elsewhere around the country, the Democrats won a previously Republican-held seat in Washington to take the state senate and turn the apple state into a blue trifecta, flipped two seats in the Georgia legislature that ended the Republicans supermajority, Medicaid expansion won in Maine, and the most historically interesting result of the night was in Chester County Pennsylvania, where seats were flipped blue for the first time since Thomas Jefferson’s democratic-republicans owned them in 1799(!). So what do the results mean? It certainly seems like a wave may be coming, but how big is it?
I am going to largely ignore New Jersey in these results because what happened there was suppose to happen. The incumbent governor, Republican Chris Christie, had a 19% approval rating from the electorate in a dominantly blue state that voted for Clinton by 14 points last November. Guadagno was tied to the unpopular Christie as lieutenant governor, there was no escaping that for her, not just in a more democratic friendly environment but even if the political environment was more friendly to Republicans she still would have lost. What I’m saying is that Murphy should have blown her out, and he did by about 14 points, therefore a blowout win by Murphy and the Democrats shows that they are where they need to be. Virginia, on the other hand, is a different story. Yes, Virginia is now moving from a swing to a lean-blue state, but Virginia now is more around 4-5 points blue, not the 9-10 points blue that Northam won by. Northam’s victory, along with many others for Democrats around the country, was in large part a result of what was expected to happen last year but didn’t, that white, college-educated voters would leave the GOP in droves over Trump. While there was movement in this demographic towards the Democrats from 2012 to 2016, it wasn’t at the level that the Clinton camp wanted and Trump still won them by a very thin margin.
If Virginia is any sign though, they have left him for good. Northam over performed Clinton in the northern Virginia suburban counties of Fairfax and Loudon, due in part to white educated people leaving the Republican party over disdain for Trump and opposition to Ed Gillespie’s race-baiting culture war campaign that took over his ad drive over the final few weeks. Northam took in voters in both the northern suburbs and other suburban areas such as Richmond and Roanoke that left Gillespie after he turned from the moderate, Reagan conservative of his 2014 senate campaign into a Donald Trump lite campaign. Northam also flipped a couple counties around Virginia Beach in the southeast part of the state, but that is yet to be seen if that was more because of an overall ideological change in the region or as a result of Northam having roots in the region.
The overall movement of white, college-educated people towards the democratic party and the results of the house of delegates should be alarming to the GOP. The 15 seats flipped in the election, and the other 5-6 that nearly flipped occurred in all but one place that Clinton had won during the 2016 election. This should be alarming not only to the northern suburbs congressional representative, Barbara Comstock, already one of the most vulnerable Republicans next year, but to others like her in highly educated, suburban districts. Democrats need to flip 24 seats to win the house next year, and the highest targets on their list have to be the Republicans in the 23 districts that Clinton won with a GOP representative. If the Virginia results hold across the nation, and from other results November 7th such as WA 45 and the flipping of executive positions in historically red Nassau and Westchester counties they are, the GOP congressmen and women such as California’s Darrell Issa, Arizona’s Martha McSally, and Minnesota’s Erik Paulsen should be sweating. If the Dems are to take the house, they are going to have to take most of these seats, and after Tuesday’s results, the odds of doing that seem to be in their favor.
The liberal grassroots energy also seems to be on the exact track to deliver similar wave-like results for Democrats that the conservative grassroots energy delivered to Republicans in 2010, 2014, and 2016. While around half the voters in both Virginia and New Jersey said that Trump wasn’t a factor in their vote, the ones who did say that Trump made a factor let it be known. Twice as many voters in both New Jersey and Virginia who factored Trump into their vote did it in opposition to him rather than in favor of him. The president’s below 40 approval rating also caused independents, some of which had likely voted for him just 12 months ago, to switch to the Democrats, leading to their big wins and showing that even in this age the common factors that determine midterm elections still apply.
There are a couple signs though from the Tuesday elections that the GOP should like.
The only concern for the GOP about these rural voters is will they show up elsewhere, as turnout in southwest Virginia did go down more considerably more from 2016 than in the more democratic, college-educated part of the state, and how much will the leftward shift of the college-educated white demographic impact governors races in swing and blue states that the GOP currently controls, such as Illinois and Michigan. Virginia still is only one state, and these other races were spread out and few, so we don’t know for example if rural voters will stick with the Republicans when Trump isn’t on the ballot in southwest Wisconsin, or if the Democrats have brought white college-educated people into the party in the ruby red suburbs of Milwaukee, for example.
Don't kid yourself, part of the Democrats big wins were a result of liberal America hitting back on the culture wars. A transgender individual beat a legislature who was in support of a bathroom bill similar to that of North Carolina, Hoboken, New Jersey elected the first Sikh mayor, Virginia elected it's first two Latino legislators to the House of Delegates, a women in New Jersey beat a man who had just a few months prior made fun of the women's march, and the first African American mayors of St. Paul and Charlotte were elected, as well as the first lesbian mayor of Seattle. If that isn't liberal America sending a message in the culture wars, just a month after being rejected by nearly half the nation's voters, then I don't know what is.
It’s still a full year until the midterms, and there’s still a lot of time between now and then, but if the 2017 results tell us anything is that a blue wave is forming, the question only being how big it is and will it also include rural areas that Democrats need to take the house, but if they can use their grassroots, culturally motivated base, keep bringing in college educated whites, and develop an economic plan that gets back some Obama to Trump voters, then you can just hand Nancy Pelosi the gavel back.