Look, it wasn’t just Virginia. It was Westchester and Nassau counties in New York. And in Virginia it wasn’t only the governorship the Republicans lost. When all the votes are counted, their 66-34 majority in the House of Delegates may turn into a minority.
The Democrats had a big night Tuesday, and the president of the United States took it right in the kisser. And it was all about him.
I spent Wednesday and Thursday talking to Virginia Republicans, from centrists to hard rightists. Not one expressed surprise at the outcome. All acknowledged the cause was Donald Trump.
About future prospects, the state Republican Party was blunt. Yes, out-of-state money and groups had an impact, as did Republican congressional inaction. But 68% of voters under 45 voted Democratic, and Republicans lost nonwhite voters 80% to 20%. “If we do not find a way to appeal to these two groups,” the party chairman said in a statement, “the results will be grim.”
A smart, experienced Republican elected official: “It was a total repudiation of Trump—no other way around it. Voters, more women than men, were literally walking in and saying ‘I’m here to vote against Trump.’ The name of the victim on the ballot didn’t matter.” Accomplished mainstream legislators lost along with bomb throwers.
Mr. Trump lost Virginia last year by 5%, worse than Mitt Romney’s 3% defeat, and distributed differently. “Trump in 2016 lost in the growing areas—suburban, diverse—and won big in the shrinking areas—rural, white,” the official observed. “The suburban educated women problem will grow in states that are getting bigger and more diverse. We have hitched our wagon to the shrinking team.”
And although “it was a suburban bloodbath,” it went “well beyond the suburbs. Losing so many seats in our House of Delegates was historic—half of the losses in Northern Virginia, but losses too in Virginia Beach, where we have military population, and the Richmond suburbs.” Gov.-elect Ralph Northam is from the Virginia Beach area.
The official explains: “The female backlash about Trump is in part a response to the resurgence of male chest-thumping following Hillary’s demise and Trump’s victory. Trump has unleashed men to be more oblivious to real sexism at a time when women are feeling liberated by the demise of Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, etc. They can’t vote against Harvey or Bill, but they can vote against Trump and anyone remotely near him.”
A GOP political operative who worked on one of the Virginia races said “there is a Catch-22: We can’t win with Trump, and we can’t win without him.” Republican Ed Gillespie worked hard, but “authenticity matters.” He made a fortune as a lobbyist and political strategist—a swamp creature. Trump supporters didn’t embrace him as a friend.
Mr. Trump’s first year has left almost everyone embittered: “Democrats are furious at Trump, and rational Republicans are deeply depressed. Regular Republicans feel nothing is getting done—I heard this everywhere I went.”
The bottom line is that the election was about Mr. Trump: “How do you win when your leader has an approval rating of 35%?”
From a 45-year Virginia resident, a conservative with libertarian impulses: “A lot of Virginians are more or less moderate-to-liberal.” Mr. Northam was “nonthreatening—a doctor, former military,” and “as long as Democrats sound moderate, they’ll do OK.” This Virginian thought the weather significant: “It rained all Election Day. People had to be highly motivated to come out. The people who are anti-Trump are highly motivated!”
From a 30-year Northern Virginia resident and conservative intellectual: “Midterm elections almost always go against the party in the White House, and Trump hasn’t changed that. But look, Trump is very unpopular—I won’t dispute ‘friggin’ hated’ for much of the country, maybe most. and Republican attempts to repeal ObamaCare are particularly unpopular.” Health care was the top issue to Virginia voters; exit polls showed those for whom it was most important went Democratic 77% to 23%.
Finally, from a New York-based political veteran: “It was a referendum on Trump, and he lost. Fifty-seven percent of Virginia voters disapproved of him, half of them strongly. It was the higher end of Blue America unloading on him. Whites with college degrees gave 51% of their vote to the Democrat. Last year Trump won that demographic [in Virginia] 49% to 45%. They turned up at the polls as 41% of electorate. Last year it was 38%. They went out of their way to unload on him, and succeeded.”
He thought Tuesday was also a verdict on Trump’s equivocations after Charlottesville: “Trump and Steve Bannon treated Charlottesville as a nonevent. Virginia voters thought otherwise.” The administration’s “marriage to the alt-right comes with a cost.”
The larger picture? We’re in the early scenes of big change. We’re seeing the gradual cratering of both parties. Tuesday night obscured this for the Democrats and highlighted it for the Republicans. Democrats are split between moderates and a rising progressive left, which has all the energy, enthusiasm and intellectual action. Mr. Trump united the Democrats in Virginia. That won’t last forever.
The Republican Party is divided by serious questions about its essential purpose, and by Mr. Trump. As the Virginia officeholder observed: “Trump’s divisiveness makes it more challenging to have a center-right Reaganesque approach, because it’s all about Trump—you’re either not praising him enough or not attacking him enough. . . . All the oxygen is Trump or anti-Trump.”
The threat for Democrats is that they’ll overplay their hand—that heady with their first big win since Barack Obama’s re-election, they’ll go crazy-left.
If they are clever they will see their strong space as anti-Trump, socially moderate and economically liberal. Will they be clever? Hunger encourages discipline, and they are hungry. But emboldened progressives will want to seize the day.
Tuesday night’s losses could have a helpful effect on Trump enthusiasts. They imagine the number and strength of his supporters as bigger than it is. They imagine his opponents as unappreciative sellouts: Trump has won and will continue to win, you just don’t get it. After Virginia, they must surely see trouble. Donald Trump has not built support in the middle, he’s alienated it. The press’s antipathy to Mr. Trump is real and unchangeable, but you cannot blame all his problems on it. Pros get around the press, use it as a foil and straight man, and speak every day to independents, centrists and the softly aligned.
Mr. Trump has not been able to do this. It is the big story of the year since his election—that he has not a growing base but a smaller, so-far indissoluble core.
The parties are each in an existential crisis. The Democrats, split between the Sanders/Warren progressive vision and the old Clinton vision, will fight more passionately among themselves as 2020 approaches. The Republicans are left knowing that day by day, Mr. Trump is crashing. The wiser of them suspect that when he’s gone, what replaces him is nothing. Because the Republican Party is riven and no one knows what it stands for anymore.
In both parties there is too much distance between the top and the bottom. In both, ambivalent leaders are chasing after voters they no longer understand. That is the second big fact since Trump’s election.