Heading into Tuesday night’s gubernatorial election in Virginia, national Democrats badly needed a win. After dropping some serious coin in special elections in Georgia and elsewhere, the party faced some legitimate questions about whether their brand, in the age of Donald Trump, was now past its sell-by date.
But after sweeping statewide elections in Virginia and closing the gap in the state’s House of Delegates, it’s tempting to think we’ve finally hit the limits of Trumpism.
As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie noted, a diverse coalition of Virginians, from black voters in Tidewater country and college kids in Charlottesville, to professionals in Fairfax County and the Washington D.C. suburbs, came out en masse to rocket Ralph Northam to victory in the must-win gubernatorial contest.
And they were energized. As The Washington Post noted, “Turnout [in Virginia], however, was the highest in 20 years for a gubernatorial race, five percentage points and 10 percentage points higher than the last two. And voters in the urban and rural regions of the state broke more heavily along party lines than they had in the prior elections.”
Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, tried to run as President Donald Trump -- without actually being Trump, hit Northam as soft on crime and immigration.
It didn’t work. Trump, joined by his minions in conservative media, not only threw Gillespie under the bus, they slammed it into reverse, and backed over him.
“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” Trump Tweeted. “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!”
To be sure, Democrats have, to borrow from English pub rocker Ian Dury, reasons to be cheerful after their wins in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere on Tuesday night.
But here’s an important caveat: Democrats mostly won in places where conditions already favored them.
Despite the intensity of the Virginia contest, six of the state’s last 10 governors, including outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe, have been Democrats.
In New Jersey, they recaptured the Governor’s Mansion after eight years of Republican rule with the term-limit enforced exit of the corrosive Chris Christie.
But Hillary Clinton won both states comfortably in 2016. She carried Virginia 49.73-44.41 percent over Trump, while the Garden State went 55-41 to Clinton last year.
Writing for The New York Times, Nate Cohn wisely observed that Democrats’ advantage Tuesday might not work elsewhere in the country.
“There are only 11 Republican-held congressional districts in the United States where Mrs. Clinton won by five points or more,” he wrote. “Even if Democrats swept those 11 districts, it wouldn’t get them that far toward the 24 seats they need to flip the House.”
To counter Trump, some veteran Democrats believe the party needs to return to its roots, recapturing and reinvigorating the economic populism that once resonated with the blue-collar voters who defected to Trump’s banner in 2016.
That means, for instance, that Democrats will have to sell those same voters on the idea that the Republican-authored tax cut plan (don’t ever, ever call it reform) is just a massive give-back to Corporate America and won’t benefit them at all in the long run.
It’s not going to be an easy lift – at all.
A dispiriting (for Democrats) article in Politico magazine this week drove home the magnitude of that task.
Reporter Michael Kruse caught up with voters in Johnstown, Pa., a struggling former industrial city in one of the four Rust Belt States that helped put Trump in the White House.
Not only are Trump voters there fully aware that the president hasn’t delivered on many of his promises – they also don’t care. Instead, they see his anger as a curative to Washington’s paralysis. And even though he hasn’t come across for them – they’re not abandoning him either.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for Trump foes. In fact, a Democratic victory outside Philadelphia could be a road map to win in the suburbs.
In Delaware County, on Philadelphia’s storied Main Line, Democrats ate into the GOP’s years-long lock on the county council, winning two seats up for election. Republicans still control three of five seats.
In the days leading up to the election, Democrats ran on an explicitly anti-Trump platform, distributing signs that read “Vote Nov. 7th Against Trump,” and “Vote Nov. 7th: Bring Sanity Back.”
The swing In Delaware County is part of a trend that’s seen the suburbs, once a Republican redoubt, come into closer orbit with more liberal urban cores.
In response, Republicans have retrenched among rural voters in so-called “fly-over country,” and in the Rust Belt.
To borrow from one more time from Ian Dury, there were plenty of reasons for Democrats to be cheerful.
Now all they have to do is not screw it up.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.