Virginia always elects a new governor the year after a presidential election, and it almost always elects a governor from the party opposite that of the president (9 of the last 10 times, in fact). So everyone knew it would be hard for Republicans to pull out a victory this year.
But Republican Ed Gillespie and the rest of the Republican ticket ran a strong race. They were solid in fundraising and ran neck-and-neck with the Democrats for the home stretch of the campaign. Democrat Ralph Northam was a mediocre candidate running a lackluster campaign, and it seemed the momentum was on the GOP’s side.
Then things went terribly, horribly wrong.
Not only did Democrat Ralph Northam win by 9 points, Democrats swept the Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General races, and flipped at least fifteen seats in the House of Delegates. The Republican majority of 66 seats in the State House has dwindled to 51 — and three races where Republicans lead by about 100 votes or less are headed for recounts.
The crazy part is that Gillespie, a genuinely good man, actually received more votes than any Republican candidate in Virginia history. Many predicted that his distance from Trump would hurt his turnout in the southern and western parts of the state. It didn’t, because Republicans turned out in record numbers. But Northam received more votes than any candidate of any party in Virginia history. Even those who predicted the Democrats would win could not have predicted such a stunning and decisive victory.
Why did it happen? One word: Trump.
I’ve heard in the last week that Virginia went wrong because of changing demographics and the inaction of the Republican Congress. These things played a part for sure. I’ve also heard — from Trump himself — that Gillespie did not fully embrace the Trump agenda, and that’s why he lost.
However, Trump is wrong, and it was cowardly for the President to suggest that. Gillespie was able to unite both the Trump and not-so-Trump wings of the GOP to generate the highest Republican turnout ever. It still wasn’t enough.
The fact is that, other than putting Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, the Trump administration has not delivered on any top Republican priorities. On Obamacare, Trump did not provide any leadership to bring GOP efforts to repeal the law across the finish line. And now the tax reform effort is flailing because, again, Trump is not providing any leadership to sell the plan to the public.
The Trump administration has put a lot of good people in place to undo some of the damage of the Obama years and has delivered several small but real victories for conservatives. But all of that has been overshadowed by the D.C. soap opera, fueled by Trump’s Twitter wars. He has not become the leader we hoped he would be — not yet, at least.
Is the Virginia debacle all Trump’s fault? No. It’s mostly the fault of Northern Virginia liberals, who federalize everything and only care about what happens in Washington, D.C. This is in line with their big government ethos — they look to Washington for solutions. D.C. provides them their livelihood — if they’re not working for the government, they’re working for an industry that relies on the government. They don’t particularly care about the rest of the state, and they don’t care about the state-level issues that the governor actually deals with. They didn’t pay attention to the Ed Gillespie’s detailed plan or Ralph Northam’s lack of one. They simply decided they didn’t like Trump and were going to vote for the Democrat regardless of the real issues. (If you want to learn more about what happened, I recommend this post from a respected Virginia conservative activist.)
Perhaps 2016 was a realignment election, in which blue states turned red, and red states went blue, for the next generation. Perhaps the cost of turning Ohio and Michigan red was losing Virginia to the Democrats for the foreseeable future. We won’t know for a few more years. But the more immediate worry is 2018. Sure, the Republicans will likely pick up a few Senate seats in some of those red states, like Ohio and North Dakota. But they are in real danger of losing the House, because anti-Trump voters in every congressional district across the country will turn out in big numbers in 2018.
If Trump does not become the leader the country needs, and the Republican Congress continues to fail on its priorities, 2018 will look as ugly for Republicans nationally as 2017 did in Virginia.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore