EDITORIAL: Were 2017 races a harbinger, or a blip?
Give credit to President Donald Trump on this count: He gets voters to the polls.
Even when he himself is not on the ballot.
A surge in off-year turnout last week swept Democratic candidates into office in a number of races state — and nationwide — many in districts that were thought not even to be competitive. Exit polls showed dissatisfaction with Republican leadership, and Trump in particular, was a significant motivating factor.
Indeed, Delaware County’s Democratic Party chairman, David Landau, citing a string of party victories in Pennsylvania districts and municipalities, told the Associated Press, the Democratic “tsunami” reminded him of post-Watergate voting trends.
Whether this is the beginning of a resurgent Democratic Party or just a vocal protest vote at a time when Republicans have made almost nothing of their majority status in Washington remains to be seen.
Either way, it was a shot across the bow for Republican office holders, particularly those facing voters in 2018.
Trump’s upset win in 2016 came about in no small part by the legions of voters he energized. Yes, he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million, but the droves that swarmed polling stations in deep-red districts (like York County) helped him eek out victories in supposedly Democratic strongholds (like Pennsylvania), en route to his Electoral College triumph.
Trumpism without Trump appears to be a less successful strategy, however, as Virginia’s gubernatorial race demonstrated.
Republican candidate Ed Gillespie attempted to adopt the populist positions of the president while keeping Trump himself — who backed Gillespie but did not campaign for him — at arm’s length. He lost decisively — a fact the president quickly attributed via Twitter to Gillespie’s insufficient embrace of both the Trump agenda and Trump himself.
Elsewhere in Virginia, Democrats captured at least 15 seats in the state House of Delegates and, pending recounts on a couple of knotted races, may have won enough to take control of a statehouse Republicans held by a 66-34 majority.
Democrats also captured the governor’s mansion in New Jersey, where deeply unpopular Republican Chris Christie served under a term limit.
But it wasn’t the number of races won, it was the margins of victory. Races that were expected to be close turned into Democratic routs (Ralph Northam took that Virginia governor’s contest by nine points). Districts that were considered safely Republican flipped (in New York, two-term Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino — his party’s gubernatorial candidate in 2014 — was clobbered by double digits).
And it wasn’t just the number and the margins, it was the diversity. Women and minority candidates accounted for all manner of firsts last week.
Danica Roem become the first openly transgender candidate elected to a state office, defeating an opponent who proudly claimed the title Virginia’s “chief homophobe.”
Progressive Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney who has represented Blacks Lives Matter and Occupy Philly, was overwhelmingly swept into the Philadelphia district attorney’s office.
St. Paul, Minnesota, elected its first mayor of color; Provo, Utah, elected its first female mayor; Charlotte, North Carolina, elected its first African-American woman mayor; Seattle elected its first woman mayor in nearly a century (and first lesbian mayor); Hoboken, New Jersey, elected a Sikh mayor. The list goes on.
If Democrats can continue to draw both candidates and support from this increasingly diverse nation, they may be on the way to winning back some of the estimated 1,000-plus state and federal seats they lost during the Obama administration.
But they shouldn’t get giddy.
After all, Republicans have won four out of five special elections to Congress this year, all of which were described as referenda on the president. And they still have plenty of time to demonstrate they can enact their agenda.
And then there’s the president. While Donald Trump won’t be on the ballot in 2018, he’s certain to play a more significant role in the congressional races than he did this year. And he remains capable of whipping up his loyal base.
Of course, with his popularity lagging and his administration embroiled in an ongoing investigation into possible coordination with Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, GOP candidates may have to make district-by-district decisions about locking arms with the president. Espousing some version of Trump Lite evidently doesn’t work, as Virginia’s Gillespie learned.
So Democrats shouldn’t get complacent. They showed last week they can energize their supporters, animate segments of the population that feel dismissed by the administration, and bring fresh faces to competitive races.
They had a good night. They must now build on their newfound momentum.
There’s a fine line between a good night and goodnight.