This had been a long and desultory 364 days for the Democratic Party, what with President Donald Trump winning the White House and the rest of the Republicans maintaining control of congress before reeling off a winning streak of four special elections, but on Tuesday night they at long last put some impressive wins on the board. The Democrats decisively won a gubernatorial race in Virginia that was widely seen as a referendum on Trump, as well as all the other statewide offices and a House of Delegates race pitting a transgender candidate against the self-described “chief homophobe of Virginia” who had authored a segregated restroom bill, and they ended eight years of Republican rule in the New Jersey governor’s mansion with a far bigger rout.
That Virginia gubernatorial race got the most attention, of course, because it was expected to be close and was by the far the most interesting. The race pitted Republican Ed Gillespie against Democrat Ralph Northam, and the stark contrast in a state that is neither very Republican nor very Democratic had obvious national implications. Both parties, we suspect, will carefully analyze the race.
Gillespie is a longtime Washington lobbyist who served as a counselor to President George W. Bush and ran the Republican National Committee’s state organizing operation and was a senior member of Republican nominee Mitt’s Romney’s campaign, and such impeccably establishment credentials and a mainstream message brought him to a near upset against longtime Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Warner in 2014. By 2016 Trump had won with anti-establishment and defiantly outside-the-mainstream message, and although Virginia was the only southern state that Trump didn’t carry Gillespie decided to pursue a similar strategy. His advertisements stressed Northam’s past support for “sanctuary cities” that refuse to enforce federal immigration laws and promised a much tougher stand, touted his own opposition to the removal of public statues honoring the Confederacy, and included some direct mail showing pictures of National Football League players taking a knee during the national anthem.
The campaign was careful not to mention Trump by name, and reportedly declined Trump’s repeated offers of an appearance on Gillespie’s behalf, but it was hard not to notice the Trumpian overtones. Trump had narrowly lost the state despite huge majorities in the very Southern southern part of the state because of huger majorities in the northern part of state where everybody works in nearby Washington, D.C, so the apparent strategy was to rile up the rednecks in the south without alarming all the more genteel Republican congressional staffers and lobbyists and reporters in the D.C. suburbs who had almost carried him to victory just three years earlier. If Trump were a shrewder politician he would have played along by staying away, but of course he “tweeted” his way into contest with taunts of Northam and no mention of Gillespie, and that didn’t help Gillespie pull of what was already bound to be a difficult trick.
The president predictably “tweeted” while on his Asian tour that Gillespie lost because he didn’t fully embrace Trump, forgetting that Virginia was the one southern state that he didn’t win. A full-throated Trump endorsement might have brought out a few extra votes in those oh-so-southern precincts, but it would have also energized all the Democrats in the D.C suburbs while discouraging those Republican establishment voters who live next door, so there’s no reason to think he would have fared any better in the state this around. The last time Trump was invited to a campaign appearance was during the special Republican primary in Alabama, where he rarely mentioned his preferred candidate’s name and admitted he might have made a mistake in endorsing the guy in the first and got more headlines by fulminating about NFL players, and that guy wound up losing to a full-fledged theocrat who’s Trumpier than Trump himself, who might yet wind up losing in Alabama of all places.
There’s a strong case to be made against “sanctuary cities,” although our old-fashioned Republican sensibilities prefer they not be couched in such frankly racialist language as both Trump and Gillespie have used, and the there’s a reasonable case for preserving those statues honoring confederate soldiers, but no case to be made for honoring the Confederacy, and surely the country has better things to worry about than what some NFL players do during the national anthem, so we’re not sure what good Trumpism did Gillespie even without bringing Trump into it.
Meanwhile the Democrats were running a very mainstream and establishment candidate, who was of course too far left for our tastes and most of the D.C. suburb Republicans, but it could have been worse. Self-described socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and the entire Sandersnista wing of the party backed insurgent candidate Tom Perrielo in the primary, but after that fell short Perrielo enthusiastically campaigned on Northam’s behalf against the Trumpian threat, and the party unity carried the day. That’s a lesson Democrats elsewhere would be wise to heed, but so far they don’t seem any smarter about this stuff than the Republicans.
The Democratic blow-out in New Jersey was more predictable, given the state’s Democratic tendencies, but also has implications for Trump and Trumpism. Gov. Chris Christie won the office eight years ago because the longtime Democratic rule had over-taxed and over-spent and over-regulated the state so badly that it went for a rare Republican, and after some initial pain the tax cuts and spending cuts and deregulation had worked out well enough to win him reelection, but since then he’s managed to annoy just about everyone. Hard-core Republicans were appalled when he literally hugged President Barack Obama in the aftermath of a hurricane that hit New Jersey, and of course the Democrats weren’t all placated. He denounced the character and intellect and temperament of Trump when they were both vying for the Republican nomination, and when became an obsequious sycophant after Trump forced him out of the primary of course the Trump supporters weren’t placated. Christie had sent Trump’s son-in-law’s father to prison back in his days as a federal prosecutor and didn’t get a cabinet appointment, which made him look ridiculous, and a bridge tie-up engineered by his underlings and an embarrassing photo of him of sunning his considerable self on a public beach he’d ordered closed during a government didn’t help,
Despite his first term heroics Christie is leaving office with an approval rating below 20 percent, so it’s hardly surprising that an instinctively Democratic state overwhelmingly rejected his Lieutenant Governor to replace him. We’re not sure what lessons Republicans or Democrats should learn from this, except that Trump always complicates things, but it provided another reason for the Democrats to be celebrating on a cold and windy November night for the first time in years.
That four-and-oh winning streak the Republicans racked up during the special elections were in states and districts replacing popular Republicans incumbents who had been tabbed for Trump administration jobs, and although none were very close all were closer than the party could usually expect. Here in the fourth congressional district of Kansas the Democrat ran ads featuring himself firing semi-automatic weapons and distancing himself from the usual Democratic craziness, and he came within single digits of a Republican whose ads showed him wading in the same metaphorical swamp that Trump had promised to drain, and across the country both Trump and Trumpism aren’t polling well.
Trump can rightly claim that the unemployment rate is down and the stock market is up since his election, albeit on more or less the same trajectory that preceded his election, but the mainstream of America and the old guard of its political parties surely surely deserves some credit for that, and what we gather from Tuesday’s results is that as used to be usual whichever party comes closer to the center will reap the benefits.
— Bud Norman